Gertrude Levi (Hungary)

“To some extent my feelings from then on were paralysed; even today I am unable to grieve when someone I love dies.”

Trude Levi – survivor of Auschwitz – was born in Szombathely, the most anti- Semitic town in Hungary, the daughter of a doctor. Believing the Hungarian Jews would escape the grip of Hitler, she lived a relatively normal life until 19th March 1944 when the Nazis occupied Hungary. In July that year, aged 20, Trude arrived at Auschwitz. She now lives in London and written and spoken extensively about her experiences.

I was working in Budapest as a Nursery School teacher and also gave private lessons. Sunday, March 19, 1944 was a beautiful day. I took the tram along the Danube to go to a private pupil. On the way back all along the Danube there were German tanks with German soldiers and machine guns. We had been occupied. No one expected it but things moved very fast after that. I was desperate to get home but in order to board a train I now needed a permit. When I eventually arrived back in my hometown, it happened to be after six in the evening when Jews were no longer allowed on the street, or to take the tram. So, laden with my luggage and carrying my cello, I started to walk home – all the time I was being asked to show my permit, was kicked, spat at and called ‘dirty Jew or Jewish pig’. This was my homecoming. No wonder I was never homesick again.

At home I discovered that my father had been taken away by the SS and my mother had collapsed and was now an old and broken woman. We were forced to move first to the ghetto and then to the outskirts of the town to a concentration camp in a disused factory polluted with oil. Early on that first morning I heard a loudspeaker calling for 50 volunteers to go to a neighbouring town. There was absolutely no reason for us to go but I knew somehow that we had to be part of the 50. It was not characteristic of me at all, but suddenly I became really pushy. It was as though I was possessed. I actually shoved one older woman out of the group so that my mother could go in her place. I’m not proud of that. But it was the only time in my life that I had behaved like this.

At the next concentration camp we were miraculously reunited with my father for two days and then on the third day the three of us were put into a cattle truck heading towards an unknown destination. It was a horrendous 6-day journey, crammed together with 120 others without water, food or ventilation. Finally on the 7th July 1944 we arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau – right next to the chimneys spewing out smoke with a terrible stench which I later discovered came from the crematoria where after gassing they were burning the bodies. At this point I was separated from my parents – never to see them again.

We were stripped naked, SS men shaved every hair from our body, and then gave us one piece of clothing each. We got dysentery and as we had no access to water neither to drink nor to wash ourselves the porous soil stuck to us. There was not a blade of grass or a tree in sight. 1,200 women lived in these barracks – young people kept alive to become slave workers. The order was: ’Destruction through work’.

The Jews in the camps were people just like anyone else. Some were aggressive and some were meek: some selfish, and some caring. From the ones who would do anything to stay alive were chosen our Kapos – supervisors. They were the ones who were given the job of distributing the food – which meant looking after themselves first. Later I was ordered to become a work-leader, but I risked my life by refusing. I didn’t want to die but I didn’t want to live at any price, without self-respect and integrity. My duties would have involved pushing around my mates to work harder, to spy on them and denounce them. I had a choice!

One night we were chased out of the barracks to an assembly place. 14,000 women stripped naked for a medical examination. Many women were weak and collapsed under the freezing temperatures. We stood there for 14 hours until the main camp doctor Mengele arrived for the inspection. We had to show him the palms of our hands; then he said ‘open your mug’. Perhaps he was looking to see if we had gold in our teeth because he then told some of us to stand on the right and some to stand on the left. Those sent to the right died.

At another camp, Hessisch-Lichtenau – one of the 136 Buchenwald outcamps connected to factories – conditions were a little better. We had been taken here to work in Hirschhagen munitions factory, used as slave labourers. There I became part of a sabotage group.

The commandant was called Willi Schaefer. He did everything according to the rules but he was not a sadist. We had numbers – but only very few Hungarians had it tattooed on their arms. I did not. My number was 20607. One day I was taken with another girl out of the camp and ordered to dig a grave for the commandant’s dog. I was weak and the ground was frozen but we dug the hole as the commandant and two SS women watched us. Then, Willi Schaefer thanked us kindly and thereafter, whenever I saw him in the camp, he greeted me politely. From then on I became a human being again – for him I was not just a number. Our second commandant, Ernst Zorbach, was the vilest of creatures – to call him a beast is an insult to the animal kingdom. Yet he appreciated music and organised a concert. The great German poet, Goethe, once said ‘Evil people have no songs’. He was wrong.

I survived because I was lucky – not because I was tougher or braver than anyone else. I even miraculously survived the forced death march right before the defeat of Nazi Germany. We marched in rows of five, pulling the German guards’ luggage on wooden trolleys. We were given nothing to eat and slept on frozen ground. Anyone who collapsed on the way or could not get up in the morning was shot on the spot. I had collapsed on the last day – the day the guards gave themselves up to the Americans. I expected to be shot but one of the guards said: “leave her, she is not worth a bullet anymore” and went on chasing those who could still walk.

After the end of the war I discovered that almost all of my family and friends had died. That’s when the sadness came, when the loss became a reality. But to some extent my feelings from then on were paralysed; even today I am unable to grieve when someone I love dies. Perhaps I have built up internal defences because it was the only way I could go on living.

Most of my friends and family were exterminated – I use that word because we Jews were considered subhuman vermin and vermin are exterminated. I will never forgive Hitler or those Germans who did such dreadful things such as killing, torturing and maiming. I do not forgive the Nazis – nor do I wish to. I feel hatred towards the perpetrators. But this doesn’t mean that I hate all Germans – it’s only those Germans my age or older who I avoid meeting for fear that I might have to shake hands with someone who may have killed or tortured my parents and friends or others.

I certainly do not hate the next – second and third – generations, who should never be made to feel guilty. They are not responsible for what their parents or grandparents did. Even in the first generation there were many – not enough – Germans who were courageous and risked their life to hide (in Berlin) some 3,000 Jews and political dissidents. 10,000 people in Berlin were involved with this action.