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1-Introductions & More Auschwitz Experiences
My name is Whitney, my name is Evie, my name is Matt and we're here to interview Gloria Lyon. It's May 6th, 2003 and we're in San Francisco.
Were there experiences where your imagination, what your view of what happened might be different than what you remember?
Yes, in some cases there were some memory lapses. And some of which I totally forgot and in other cases I found that I only remembered part of the story. And as I'm writing my autobiography now, suddenly some of this came back and it jogged my memory and it's amazing, it's as if I had it all along. It was a very smooth transition. For example, for example, I totally forgot what I did, what kind of work I did at the Continental Gummiwerke in Hanover, Germany during the Holocaust. And I just couldn't remember. And one day I was watching the news on television and there was some big news about this Bhopal, India accident. They were transporting dangerous liquids across, well and then it spilled and a lot of people died in that incident. And so we in the U.S. became rather very concerned. Well what do we do? What sort of precautionary measures do we take when we transport this very same type of liquid from one state to another? And here I watched someone from I believe Georgia, explain how he transports this liquid in huge tanks on our freeways and highways. And in doing that he demonstrated, he put on a gas mask and after that my mind just left the news.
And I knew exactly the kind of work I did at the Continental Gummiwerke. For we were making gas masks for the German folk. Hitler wanted everyone in the country to have a gas masks so we slave laborers did the work. They brought us out of the concentration camps and put us into, into these factories. And in this case the Continental Gummiwerke. Later they denied that they had slave laborers. To my face. It was incredible when I came back. Thank you.
More Auschwitz Experiences
When you were first in Auschwitz, like the first time you were in the camp, what preoccupied your mind other than what you were experiencing?
In the very beginning? Well in the very beginning we had no idea that we were in a death camp. We had no idea that there was such a thing. I never heard of a genocide before. Having been a young girl of fourteen, barely fourteen, I might add. What do fourteen-year-olds do? From my region we used to sing a lot. And we always knew the latest tunes, having heard them on the radio. My older brothers would bring them home from the city and would teach my sister and me, the two young sisters at home, the new melodies, the new songs. When we were deported to Auschwitz we decided to make it more pleasant for the old timers and for the others.
Ten of us got together on top of my bunk. Understand that in order to do this, a population shift had to take place. In other words, there couldn't be more than ten or twelve people on a bunk, so my mother had to leave and a few other people. My sister stayed and we invited those who wanted to participate with us. On top of my bunk we decided to remember this moment, remember this time. So we composed a song. Neither of us knew music, but we enjoyed singing. We all spoke, had one common language among us and we spoke other languages too. We chose Hungarian, since that, every one of us knew. Since we were not musicians we chose a melody that we all knew as well. So all we had to really do is come up with the words. We had no pencil and no paper. Each time we composed a line, we sang that line, over and over again. And then we'd compose the second line and so on, until we had, I forget, about four verses, thirteen lines all together. With each line we would go back to the beginning and we would sing. And this happened for a few days. We sang other melodies that we knew.
Something happened one day that I'll never forget. One of the young girls who was in the group, one of the ten of us, just stood up on that little stool that was around and sang her song, at which time the Kapo came and gave her a big slap in the face. The young girl just flew off this little stool. We were just horrified! Here they seemed to have enjoyed this session. And she, the Kapo, said, "Where do you think you are, in a resort place? This is a death camp! You see the smoke stack over there? That's where your loved ones have been gassed and burned and the smoke is the smoke from their bodies!" We just stared at her. We just couldn't believe what she was saying. How cruel she is! There's no such a thing in our minds, we just couldn't understand that there would be such a thing. Slowly the realization came to us about all of these little bits of information that some of the old timers were trying to tell us. We thought it was because they were jealous of us, because we had just came from home four weeks before and we still looked quite good, even though we thought we were filthy. It turned out that they were trying to gently break the news to us that this is a death camp, this is a death factory. Indeed our families had been gassed and cremated. The smoke in those chimneys were our families' smoke. This was one of the things that set us back. Obviously we didn't sing after that. Luckily we sang a few songs before. I will never forget that day.
How do you think that your thoughts changed toward the end of the camp, like once you were starving, and really just, once the reality had hit, how did your thoughts change?
Well we totally – our thoughts changed totally when we realized that our lives are not safe here. And we came to the realization that they are not only systemically eliminating the inmates who are sick or who are weak or who cannot work, put in the heavy load for long hours, twelve hours every day, while our stomachs were hungry and while we were exhausted. But in this, that it could be our turn any time, any time, any minute any hour any day any night and we didn't know just when it would come. But eventually when we were so emaciated it was a question of time. Who will? What will happen first? Are we going to collapse before we even be picked out in a selection? It was very, that's how it was. Nobody knew.
Just to go back to the song for a second, do you remember how the song went?
The one that we composed? Oh yes I remember it very well. We took the melody from the Hatikvah which is now the national anthem of Israel. But that song was before the State of Israel was born, obviously. And that song we knew in different languages. And we sang it in Hungarian, very often, but the words now changed to our experiences in the camp. It describes what life is like in the camp. I remember that song very well.
Can you sing it?... there was one that you sang last year?
Yes. Would you like me to sing it? I sang it. Yes. Maybe one will be better than the other. [sings a song in Hungarian - not transcribed]
What is the song about?
Basically, somewhere in this world, there's a place with lots of barracks, where they hold us. That contain the Jewish people. And whether the weather is dry or wet we are forced to stand for hours, in Zaehlappell, meaning "head count." We work long hours and our duties are heavy. But work we must. And the song gives us hope that, we will be strong and live up to do our best to overcome this, so that the time will come when we will return into the homes of our loved ones. Into our homes and into the arms of our loved ones. This is our song and it will be until we die. And we will never forget that we are Jews. What I love about it is that it shows that we have no idea that we were in a death camp. We thought that there would be a time, if we would just keep up with our strength, when we will return into our homes, where we came from and that our loved ones would be waiting for us there. We will return into their arms. Little did we know it would take another a few days before we learned that most of them are no longer alive.That they had been gassed and cremated in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Role of Family While in Camps
You once said that you stayed alive, that your reasoning for staying alive, so that your mother would stay alive, so that Annuska could stay alive. So that your family could survive only if you stayed alive. What was your reasoning, what was your rationality behind that?
Well, that is very easy to explain. In Auschwitz we had very little energy. And therefore when someone died or was beaten or was selected for extermination, we had to conserve our energies consciously. We couldn't just let loose and mourn for someone. Because that takes energy and that energy used for this purpose could drag you down. And my concern was that my mother is going to fall into this trap and after all my twelve year old sister was with her, who already saved her life, shortly after she arrived. And if mother will succumb what will happen to my twelve year old sister, Annuska, that she would definitely be not able to make it on her own. So my concern was that I have to do this for my mother, because she needs to care for my sister.
You talk a lot about your mother, but not that much about your father, what was your relationship like with him?
The reason for that is because we were totally separated. We didn't see them, and we have no idea. I mean we had no idea where they were or whether they were alive. We didn't know this until long after the Holocaust. So that is why I don't talk about my father pertaining to the Holocaust experience at this time. But I do talk about him when I learned what he went through, but that was after the Holocaust.
Did you ever get a chance to see any of your immediate family after the Holocaust?
It would take seventeen years, before I first saw the surviving members of my family. Because I was separated from them, well we were all separated from each other, except for Annuska was with my mother and Sandor was with Dad. But after Auschwitz, I no longer had anyone in my family.
Oh and dad, I would not see my father for seventeen years. From the time of arrival in Auschwitz. It was at that, I went to the Soviet Union. Finally they let me in for seven days, seven days. Imagine they were going to give me only three days. And finally we agreed on seven days. And those were very precious moments. We were up into the night, not wasting any time, talking and talking and talking. And I've learned about Dad's experiences during the Holocaust. Very sketchy, sketchily because he didn't really want to talk about it yet, too much. But he also knew that I want to know and that he wanted to give me some information.
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.
And one of the reasons I think that we survivors have struggled with memories without coming out with it into the open for so long – I call this a period of psychic numbing. Eventually, of course, we did. But so far as this may be in our blood. You know I have a different theory. And this could be just as sketchy, or untrue or impossible as anything else. I think sometimes, that perhaps the reason my family survived in so many numbers is because they all have blue eyes. I'm the only that has green eyes in my family. Everybody, my mother, father, brothers, sister, they all have blue eyes. And knowing that they experimented on eyes, and the Nazi ideal, the Nordic ideal, blues eyes blonde hair, well we didn't have blonde hair, but neither did Hitler – he didn't even have blue eyes so far as I can tell from pictures. So it doesn't make any sense, but it could be just as logical as anything else I have heard or illogical.