When we watched your video it said something about you experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. We want to ask how that affected you?
Oh I had tremendous nightmares. I would close my eyes and I would have a nightmare several times a night. My Swedish sister didn't know what to do with me and she ran for her father each time. Farbror Erik I called him. It means Uncle Erik. He would come and would put his arm around me and it just was incredible what a good man he was and so was my foster mother, Tant Lilly I called her. They slowly helped me heal but these nightmares would last for years even after I came to the U.S. and I met my husband in Kansas City and we married in 1949. For several years after our marriage these nightmares pursued me and over the years they simmered down. I hardly ever have nightmares anymore.
I my have a bad dream once in a while, but no longer those horrible nightmares that would wake me up screaming and covering my head. Entire visions would come before me; I am being beaten up or something or other. I dreamed about the culvert many, many times. In these dreams, they found me and somehow dogs are ripping me apart. Painful. It was nice to wake up knowing that it wasn't so. Eventually, apparently I believed it because they no longer pursue me.
Did your foster parents understand your nightmares and what you went through?
I can understand why, we just weren't talking yet. And they couldn't understand why I had all these nightmares. I mean, they understood that I went through bad things that's why. But they had no concept as to the cruelties that we witnessed and that we experienced that caused all this. This took many years before there was the realization that survivors have gone through a lot of painful experiences aside from losing family.
You talked about having nightmares after you were liberated. Did you have these same nightmares while you were in the camps?
Oh we all did, we screamed at night and woke each other up. Or the Blockälteste who was the supervisor of the barrack itself. In fact that's the word I wanted to use earlier instead of kapo, the kapo came with us to work. And it's the Blockälteste would wake up and you know whip us down, "don't wake everybody up!" you know with the whip. So of course that woke everybody up, her loud voice and the pain she created. But we all had nightmares there, oh yeah. But we tried to wake up each other before she'd come. I don't know, that was a good question I didn't think of this, actually I forgot. Thank you.
What were some of those nightmares that you can remember? Can you remember some of them?
Most of the time I just dreamt of, you know, somebody was beating me up and I was just trying to protect my face and head and neck. Or I am climbing in through a tunnel and I'm not getting anywhere. Or it's slippery and I'm still in the same place and I'm trying to get there and they're already getting closer. You know, that sort of thing. Very frustrating dreams. I wish I could remember, I don't remember any of the nice dreams, if I ever had any nice dreams in the camp. It would have been nice to just imagine being with the family, having a Sabbath dinner. Those were so pleasant.
Now we have our own homes and we create a nice Sabbath dinner on the Sabbath. It feels good. The family was always together, all week long we were rushed and go to school, go to work whoever had to do whatever, but on Friday night they came home and on the Sabbath we were all together. And that is a beautiful memory to cherish.
Do you still do Sabbath every Friday night?
During your time in the camps, did you ever want to give up?
I don't remember ever having given up, because to me giving up meant that I am going to kill my mother and my sister. Simply because I believed that as long as I stay alive my mother will have some hope, even though she didn't know that I'm a live, in fact she thought I was dead. But if she died, then my sister could not carry on by herself. Until December, she was 12 years old, and in January they were liberated. During the liberation, she was just barely a month after her 13th birthday. My staying alive was very important for me to keep my mother alive. It's a strange way of looking at it, but emotionally this is what I felt. At the same time I saved myself thinking that. It was cathartic.
What was it like coming to the United States?
Ah, this was a new world. I always knew that the United States is the best country in the whole world, outside of Czechoslovakia. I mean, Czechoslovakia, we loved Czechoslovakia. But when we became Hungary, we slowly felt the totalitarian system and could feel that it kept getting worse and worse until we were deported. But coming to the US was wonderful.
Except that while I was on the ship coming over here my uncle died. So instead of coming to Kansas City, where, through correspondence we established that that's what I would do from Sweden, I had to come to St. Louis, Missouri, and my aunt waited for me. She just buried her brother, so she was left alone in the family, already another sister had died. But I had my aunt. They all had children So I had all these first cousins who were Americans. It was really wonderful just to know that I am no longer alone.
Shortly before I found out that my mother was alive. And I found out that my brother Michael came home. He was liberated by the Russians. My father and my brother Sandor was liberated by the Americans in Dora Mittelbau, or Mittelbau Dora they call it now. They were sent home. Mother and Annuska were liberated by the Soviet army in Auschwitz, in January 27th, 1945. They were sent home. I was the only one missing, except for Viktor.
Viktor was my youngest brother, 3 years older than I was. He would have lived as well because 3 days before liberation he was beaten with the butt of a gun by an SS Officer and according to witnesses he bled to death. So, in our family, we lost Viktor, we had a very unusually high survivor rate. For this I am grateful in spite of what happened. My dad however, lost all his brothers and sisters. He was the sole survivor in his family. Most of his nieces and nephews died except for a few - it was a very large family - in Auschwitz-Birkenau right after their arrival.
How do you feel knowing that your family, or most of your family survived. That your blood, like in your bloodline there are a strong chain of people who were able to survive this horrific.
Well you know in the very beginning, that was a wonderful question. In the very beginning there were so few people who had even a sister or a brother. And here I had, I found out, that there was one member missing from my immediate family. It was an incredibly high survival rate and obviously I was delighted. At the same time I also knew that we went through all this horrendous experiences and it changed all of us. But when I met with survivors, we never talked about family. And that wasn't only with me. It just seemed as though, that was a word that triggered a lot of pain and we just went through so much we just didn't want to face the pain.
How were you treated by Americans, and how much did they know about what you had been through and how did they react?
That's a wonderful question. This was the big difference between us. I was like a walking time bomb. I needed to talk to someone who had been through this. There was nobody to talk to. My girlfriends, I made friends very quickly, they wanted to talk about ice cream and boys. I was 17 when I came here. Sure I wanted talk about boys but you know, I had much more serious things on my mind. My uncle knew some families who had sons and they had taken me out on dates and one took me to a baseball not baseball- a basketball game. It was rather fun but I knew nothing about the game. Another one, an engineer, took me to a baseball game and to date I don't know anything about baseball. I found that totally boring and I think it was because I was too serious, for my age I already was an old woman. I wasn't a young girl except in appearance.
It took me a while to calm down and actually enjoy a date. I knew, after, these boys really liked me. I had seven marriage proposals while in the United States. I couldn't possibly marry anyone who didn't know anything about the Holocaust. I just couldn't, I felt I had more in common with men that went through the war. To me they were men, they were in their twenties. I was only 17. I had more in common with them than any boy suitable to my age.
Eventually I me Karl, who was just finishing first year law in San Francisco and went home to Kansas City to visit his parents - to be with his parents for the summer. And he got himself a summer job. He already had a degree in accounting, graduated from UC Berkeley. At that time he already finished first year law school at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
And I felt, ah, here is a big gap in our education. How could I ever be serious about anybody like that. But, gee, I was actually very serious about Karl, right after the very first day I met him. And when he told me his father was incarcerated in Dachau, the year before he came, I knew that this was the right man for me. And, of course, it had to be felt on both ends, right? And I hadn't even finished high school, just two years of high school, my education was way behind. I just began to speak English!
That summer was a beautiful romance between us. He promised to write, and he did. The following January I was in Los Angeles with my aunt, who went there, just to visit, and decided to stay, and later on went back and sold her belongings. And she said she's going to stay in Los Angeles and her son, daughter-in-law, and I should come live there. I was elated because Los Angeles was much closer to San Francisco where Karl was. January, 1949, he came down to LA and we got engaged. But we couldn't get married, we didn't have any money until August, 1949.
Almost everybody at my wedding was a stranger to me. Just friends from work, this work that I had, little jobs while I went to school. Relative's friends. Except for one person, a little 10-year old boy - who is going to come and visit us this next Monday - who went into the line twice to kiss the bride. It was so lovely. We have it on record, on film, little home movies that we made.
While I was engaged to Karl I received a letter that my mother had died. She lived three years after liberation. And then she died of hardships suffered in the camps. There were no medications for her and her lungs just collapsed. There was no antibiotics to be had. But mother wrote in her last letter that she was very happy that I am happy in the U.S. So at least she died happy.
And in 1991, I went back home where I was born, where she is buried. And that's the first time that I was reunited with my mother since our separation in Auschwitz. I talked to that tombstone as if she was alive. That cemetery was in such disgrace - horrible shape! And her beautiful marble stone that my dad put up was broken in half because, our neighbor told me - we have it right on film - that the people brought their goats into the cemetery and they knocked their stone down. They were very, very strong. And they had them tied to my mother's stone. In act, when I visited, I had to undo the cords that they were tied to. And a kindly neighbor repaired it crudely with a metal frame that caused it to rust right onto the beautiful marble stone.
And my grandma's stone, I could hardly find it. It was totally overgrown with these thorny branches. My husband found it, he uncovered it and there it lay and we cleaned it up. I found my brother's, Joseph, who was an engineer and was in an industrial accident and died shortly before the Holocaust. And grandpa's stone, where I have a picture sitting on that stone when I was just barely a year and a half old. And here I am, back in that cemetery as an adult, after the Holocaust. At least I know where they are, resting in peace.
I had all sorts. I know I remember in Sweden, the very first experience I had was when we arrived in Sweden, and we all had to remove our lousy clothes. Of course they were going to burn it, in Malmo, Sweden. And they sprayed us with DDT and then we were, a group of us were to go into a shower. And this was a big shower room, for a big high school with a big Olympic sized swimming pool. I guess big and an Olympic size is redundant, so let's just say an Olympic sized swimming pool. So there were many, many students although I don't know how many. And then we were to go into the showers, where the students usually shower, and nobody wanted to go in, nobody. We all had the same fear: that shower may be gas even though we knew we were liberated. But you see, we didn't trust yet. So, they understood. So somebody, a Swedish person, a woman, removed her clothes and went in, turned the shower on, and said "I am here".
And then ooh, we rushed in, it just felt so incredible. But I'll never forget how hesitant we were. But there were all sorts of mirrors. I'll never forget when I looked into that mirror. It was really the first time that I saw a mirror since I left home. The barracks had windows that were so filthy you couldn't see anything. Sometimes, in water, you know Auschwitz, the clay in Auschwitz, the soil in Auschwitz was really clay, it wasn't soil. So when it rained, all these puddles were there. So we would get down there actually to have some water, because there were no spigots in the barracks. We had nothing to drink so we would hold our hands to you know, have some water or wash our faces. And, that was against the concentration camp rules, but we did it. But, I would see sometimes my face in it, you know, but here, was a full length mirror in Malmo Sweden.
I looked in there, and the very first thing I did was [crosses arms across her chest]. You know, all these girls with me were budding young women, even though they were very skinny. And there I was, totally flat, you know totally flat. And I could count all the ribs and my hip bones. I was absolutely, I didn't recognize myself, my hair, my eyes looked so huge, relative to my face. And my hair stood up, like as if I had a crew cut, it was so filthy, and probably as I scratched it. I'll never forget that mirror. I was ashamed of my body.
Do you have any pictures of yourself at the point?