WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
as told by Heddy Smilovic in her
autobiographical memoir "Buchenwald
May 30, 1944
It was the next day, after we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, when I remember seeing you and father across our camp; we were not sure if you recognized us without any hair and in our shabby dresses, but when we saw you and dad waving to us, we were very happy.
Life in Auschwitz for four months was a daily cat and mouse game with Dr. Mengele. He used to come unannounced for the daily selections. Since we were skin and bone, we were certain candidates for the crematorium. We used to pad our clothes to look heavier and to apply red paint to our faces to look alive. Day in, day out, our bodies were broken up from lack of food and water. We broke out in all kind of very painful boils. But we said to each other continuously. "Don't give up, we are one day closer to our freedom, we have to make it, even with all the difficulties we have to endure."
One day we were all lined up for the tattoos on our arms, when all of a sudden they stopped tattooing for that day and we were told to go back into our barracks. A miracle, just plain luck, that we were not tattooed that day. Later I will tell you about our escape during our death march, when we pretended to be Russian girls. Imagine having tattoos on our arms.
That same week we were told that we were going to another camp to work. We were all given a piece of bread and some margarine and they took us to the railway station, after passing another one of Dr Mengele's inspections. We were all happy to leave that damned place with its daily cruel killings and atmosphere.
We traveled for about two days and nights and we arrived in Breslau. As we got off the cattle cars, we were each handed a pick or shovel, and we were taken for a long walk. We walked for about 6 hours till we finally reached our destination: a large wooded area with a large barn at the road. We were given the barn for living quarters without any beds or bedding, just some straw on the floors for our resting place. The fear that we were going to have to dig our own graves never left us. We were taken to the woods and told start digging. The hole was marked out with pegs and lines drawn along the hole area. We were not told what we were digging for. When we finished the first hole, another hole was marked out and we moved over to the new markers. Suddenly, we heard this great noise and German tanks were rolling in to the hole we just finished digging. We now realized that we were building safety holes for the tanks; they later camouflaged the tanks.
The winter was very cold, our feet were frozen, but we never gave up. We wanted to survive and tell the whole world what human beings can do to other human beings. We were nothing to them. Their only goal was how to use us for work until we dropped dead. In the two months we were there, from about one thousand that were there at the outset, only about 500 were able to work. Lots of girls died from typhus and other sicknesses. We dug these holes from morning till the next night. When we finally returned to the barn, we received our pieces of bread and a soup for the day's food; nothing more till the next night. We still managed to tell some stories at night and hand out recipes and our sister Sari was always ready with a song, especially on Friday nights.
It was Christmas night when one of the German guards asked us: what would you like for Christmas? Our wish was some new straw, since the straw we used for the few months, stank like an outhouse. The wish was granted, and a large truck brought some new straw and we were happy to unload it by hand. Suddenly, an S.S. officer appeared and told us to drop the straw and line up; we were pulling out from this area; the Russians were closing in!
We marched for six weeks, from morning to night. It was in the last days of December, the coldest winter Europe has ever seen. We were hungry and thirsty. I bent down to grab a handful of snow; it tasted like ice cream. Suddenly, a soldier hit me in the head with his rifle. The blood was dripping on the white snow. But mine was not the only blood shed in the snow. Everybody cried and tore some clothes, to use as a compress, which stopped the bleeding. We all looked up to heaven and asked, why? The lines were all busy and there was no answer.
Our transport of girls did not receive any food whatsoever. If we found an apple core in the snow, we all sucked on it for hours, until it was bone dry. One day, sister Rivczu ran into a house to get some food. She risked her life, but when you are hungry, life means nothing. She came running out with a pot of potatoes and miraculously escaped unnoticed by the SS guards. The potatoes gave us a new lease on life. The march went on. We were marching through towns and villages and woods; we never knew that so many woods existed. They were telling us that we were going to a chocolate factory to work. Every day they were counting the slaves since a lot of the girls were shot for not being able to keep up with the rest of the marchers. My feet were giving out after six weeks of steady marching. I said to our sister, "you go on, I am not going any further, even if they threaten to kill me": my strength was all gone. They refused to leave me, saying: if you die, we all will die together.
That night we slept in a barn with lots of straw to hide in. In the morning we decided that this was the end. We were not going out from this barn with the rest of the group, no matter what happened. Last night was the first time in a long time that we each received a bread. There were five of us, Shari, myself, Rivczu, Freidy, and our cousin Rivczu Weiss, also from Munkacz; together we had quite a bit of food. But during the night someone stole our fortune, and we decided to escape, food or no food. It was now or never. In the morning, the SS soldiers ordered everyone out of the barn. We didn't move, we stayed hidden in the straw, we could hear the dogs barking and the SS yelling: you better come out. With the dogs sniffing, they had discovered eleven girls, took them outside and shots rang out, a few screams and then, silence. We were terrified: we thought, how are we going to get away with this? Even if the soldiers don't find us, we still looked very Jewish. Olive skin, dark eyes, black hair, this was not what these people were used to seeing. Finally, the soldiers left the barn with the dogs. We stayed hidden and waited. Suddenly, we heard the farmer saying, "Please come out. I know that you are there. Sixteen are missing, eleven were found hiding and shot on the spot. I know there is still five of you here. If you are, please leave, since the soldiers will be occupying the barn tonight." He pleaded with us, saying: "I feel sorry for you people, please leave now." We still did not move and stayed hidden for some 3 hours.
It was about 8 a.m. when we decided to run out from the barn, taking the food the farmer left out especially for us. We ran for the woods that we eyed when we arrived the night before. As we were running, Shari stared limping. "I think I have some thing in my shoes." "Not now, we can't stop; wait till we get to the woods." As soon as we reached the woods, Shari pulled off her shoe and, miracle, under the shoe lining she found five Russian gold coins. These shoes were given to her the last day in Auschwitz when we left for our transport. Only G-d knows to whom they belonged. Now our plan was getting more in place; we were rich, perhaps we could buy our freedom somehow. We started walking with more hope; we walked through fields when we found some potatoes and ate till our stomachs couldn't take any more. After we rested for a while, we heard some men approaching and singing Russian songs. When they noticed us, they gave us a good looking-over, what a find, five beautiful girls. We started to talk to them in Russian. We learned Russian in high school, back in Munkacz and now it came in very handy. We told them that we were also Russian and we worked in Dresden on a farm. We were bombed out, we had to flee fast, our employer was killed by the bombing, and he had our papers with him. And now we have no papers at all. Sister Shari handed over the five Russian coins and said: "You keep them, they are a gift from our grandfather when we left Russia. Maybe you can help us to get some work and papers?"
They accepted the gift, and told us that they were also brought to Germany as forced labourers and they lived in the next village working on a farm. We will take you to our friendís house there, and we will try to find you work and a place to stay. We cheerfully followed them to the place. We walked for about an hour till we got to their friend's place. It was a nice village, away from any big highways and it was so quiet that we felt this would be a lovely place to spend the rest of the war. It was a small house with two rooms in it. We were invited to sit down, they served us lunch. White bread and butter, a bowl of cooked potatoes, and plenty of milk to drink. We had a feast; we looked at each other and our faces said it all. We were all taken to the back of the house where we all washed with soap and warm water and we were given some new clothes. The girl that was helping us with the food and clothes told us: I just work here on the farm. I don't want my boss to know I did all these things for you. She gave us another location to stay, until they found some place for us to work.
The next day, we got up from a wonderful rest, a breakfast with lots of food, we felt like we were newly born. The door opened and the Russian boys we met arrived; with them were five farmers from the same village. Each farmer was a tall rigid middle aged man, one told me that he had five cows, and it would be my responsibility to milk them in the morning and clean up the sty; after that I would be working in the fields planting. I told him about my physical weakness from wandering from Dresden for the past two weeks. He understood and said: "don't worry there is lot of food on the farm; within a week you will be good as new." I was so excited by this enormous change overnight that I was trembling in my skin. He also told me that his wife was very nice, and he also had a lovely 16 year old daughter. He talked all the way in German and he was glad that I spoke German. We all changed our names to sound more Russian, and I chose to be called Paula. I was happy that the milking of the cows would not be a problem because back in Munkacs we always had cows or goats, and we girls were used to take turns milking them daily. "Here we are, Paula, this is where we live," said the German farmer when the buggy stopped.
The farmer's wife stood at the door and welcomed me with a smile. She looked nice and seemed friendly. She showed me my room and I was very happy to see that finally I was back to civilization. The furniture was French provincial, all white; it looked beautiful. I had my private bath and radio. I couldn't believe my own eyes. While I was checking the other things in the room, the farmer's daughter walks in and introduced herself. We started talking and we hit it off real good. She told me that she had a wedding that night, and "look at my hair, itís a mess." "No problem," I said, "you wash your hair and give me a hot iron and I will do your hair." When I finished she looked like a movie star. They were so exited about the hairdo that the farmer's wife also wanted it done. "Be my guest," I said, "this had been my profession since I was sixteen years old." When I finished with their hair, the farmer's daughter whispered in my ears, and said: you sleep in tomorrow morning and I will do all your morning chores. Don't worry about father; he will be away all day tomorrow and he will never find out.
The next morning I slept in till noon and was served a beautiful lunch. The next morning the farmer knocked on my door. "Get up Paula, you are late." When the daughter heard the calling, she rushed to my room and asked me: "Are you sick?" I felt dizzy and couldn't move. Again she undertook to do my chores for the day since she was so happy about the hair I did for her, and also that she met this wonderful fellow at the wedding that night, and they were in love. I listened to the radio all that day. Hitler screaming "like a pig" at the slaughter, still thinking he was going to win. I thought to myself, here I am between these Germans; what if someone says to me "You are Jewish and what are you doing here?" This fear was steady with me. Also, where were my sisters located? But they kept me busy. In the morning at 5 a.m., I start milking the cows and cleaning up in the sty. We had breakfast at 8 a.m., and, after that, we worked in the fields till noon, we had our lunch, and we went back to the fields till 6 p.m.; then I washed, we had our supper and helped with the dishes, and also I did their hair, if needed; all in one day's work.
I felt much better; the snow was melting and spring was just around the corner. On Sundays they kept asking me to go with them to church, but I always came up with an excuse and stayed home, cleaning or listening to the radio. Just before Easter, the farmer's wife came into my room and handed me some new clothes and shoes. "This is for you, Paula, you have done a beautiful job here and we are grateful to you, please accept this gift from all of us as a gift of appreciation." These people were very nice to me and I would do everything they asked me to do.
One day while cleaning the house, I ran across some pictures and I noticed the picture of the farmer's son in an SS uniform and on the back was marked Auschwitz 1944. I pretty near fainted. I was glad nobody was home. I must have turned blue. I felt my blood running to my head. I got dizzy and scared. Just last week the farmer's wife was telling me they were so happy that their son was coming home for Easter. Imagine me, sitting at the table with an SS man. I had to put it out of my mind or I would have gone nuts. Easter came, but just my luck, the son of the farmer was detained and couldn't come home for Easter. I was delighted and was very happy that he was not going to be there soon. The farmer's wife asked me to go to church for the Easter holidays. I had no choice and agreed to go with them. I had never been to a church and didn't know what to do in a church, so I looked around me and did exactly what others were doing. In my heart I was very confused; me, the daughter of a Mordchei Shmiel from Munkacz, sitting in a church crossing herself: I couldn't figure out whose problem it was, mine or G-dís. As I looked around the church, I noticed our sisters and cousin were also in church. I was happy to finally find out where they were working. We had a long talk, and they all told me their new names. Rivczu was Klara, she was working at the Mayor's sister's place, Weiss Rivczu was working at the Mayor's brother's place, and sister Shari, was Maria, and she was doing the sewing for all the Mayorís family. We were glad to be working in the same village.
One day, I came home from the field, the farmer's wife told me, "I just heard from my son; he is coming tomorrow for a week furlough, I want you to clean his room and change the bedding." I thought Iíd die, knowing that the son was an SS soldier who was stationed in Auschwitz. I got goose pimples all over my body and I was scared stiff. But perhaps it would just pass and he would go back after his furlough without any big problems. Within a few hours he arrived and the family was then celebrating his homecoming, I tried to avoid him by excusing myself from coming in contact with him. But one morning, we bumped into each other and he took one good look at me and ran over to his mother and was screaming: "Do you know that you are catering to a Jewess, this girl is Jewish! I can recognize a Jew when I see one. I have seen thousands of them in Auschwitz." Luckily, he only stayed that day, but I was told by the farmer that I had to leave immediately, before we had more problems.
That night, we all got together, and we decided that next day we would join up with a Polish group that was being evacuated from the oncoming Russians. We immediately left our village, just in case they would come looking for us for interrogation. We started walking to the other village; we walked for about 5 hours when we came to the gathering place where about 300 more Polish boys and girls were gathered. We were welcomed by the group and we became Polish workers without any problems. We felt safe with this group and we mixed in with the crowd very easily. We started to walk on our way, to escape the onrushing Russian armies. The transport was halted and a selection started by a German officer pointing his finger at our row. "You five, step outside right away," he said. We thought that they caught up with us and were taking us to the German authorities. But we were wrong, we were taken to a cotton factory with another 25 girls from our group to work in the factory. Sister Rivczu got very sick and she refused to go anywhere; I must go to a hospital or I will die. She stayed with me in our room that we were assigned to in the factory. Shari Florcza and our cousin Rivczu decided to go back to their old working places in that village because work in the factory was very hard, but we had enough food to keep our strength. I had no choice, I could not go back to my old working place. Since I was fired, period, plus someone had to look after our sister Rivczu, she was very sick.
The main dining room where we ate our three meals each day became very hard to take, the different anti-Jewish statements spoken at every opportunity. "I thought that the Jewish people were all dead, or did all Jews have black eyes." But I didn't pay attention to them. Pretending that they must be talking to someone else. This was from plain German folks, workers in the cotton factory:their hate came through loud and clear. One night after supper I returned to my room bringing food for Rivczu. She was lying on the bed and couldn't move from high fever. She couldn't eat a thing from the dining room. I didn't know what to do. I had to get her to the hospital. But the hospital was miles away and there was no ambulance available. Suddenly, the door opened and an SS woman walked in and took Rivczu in her car. We had to carry her to the car, she wasn't able to walk anymore. While driving to the hospital the SS woman told me, I don't know why I am doing this. The Russians will hang me anyway when they get a hold of me. I hope somewhere, some place, someone will say, she wasn't that bad after all. I don't know who this person was, or where she came from. But I didn't care, as long as Rivczu got better soon.
The hospital was next to our town of Mitwaida and had very good nurses. The trouble was that they were all out of medicine to help the sick. I visited Rivczu weekly and had to walk both ways. I still didn't hear from Shari, Freidy and our cousin. After two weeks I decided to go and look for them at their old working place. I was happy when I finally knocked on the door not knowing who would answer. I was delighted when sister Shari opened the door and screamed "Henyu come in!" We hugged and cried for a while and she prepared a good meal and told me that Freidy and cousin Rivczu were at their old places and were doing fine. We talked about how lucky we were that we were never tattooed in Auschwitz, enabling us to run away and pretend to be someone else. Shari packed me a basket with fruits. I was happy that I wouldnít have to go down to the dining room for food. She asked me to come every Sunday and she would provide more food for me to take home. We kissed and said goodbye, I took to the road because I had to be in the factory early the next day.
It was a long trip back. I walked for about two hours and I felt very tired. The weather was beautiful and I relaxed on the bank of a small river, watching the birds flying in the air, admiring the beautiful flowers and scenery. When all of sudden I just started to sing a Czech song pretending to be in heaven and really letting my voice go. When out of nowhere a Czech young man approached me and said to me, "You are like an angel from heaven. I havenít heard a Czech song for so long that I didn't believe my ears when I heard you sing this beautiful song." Before I could say boo, he was right next to me, and his hands were traveling like an octopus all over me. I jumped up and told him: "Hold it young man, I am spoken for and his name is Arthur and he is much better looking than you are." He was kind of shook up and pulled back a few inches. When I told him that I worked in a cotton factory in Mitwaida and there was still a 6 hour walk from there, he asked if he could walk with me. I couldn't refuse, since it would be easier to walk with company. He told me about his being in Germany for the last two years as a welder and his plans to run away to Czechoslovakia in the next few weeks. We made another date for next Sunday and I was glad to see him again. He brought me a box of chocolates and he was dressed like a prince. He was trying to persuade me to go with him to Czechoslovakia. He planned to escape the following week. I refused and said I had a boyfriend back home and I still loved him. He got the message. We said goodbye with a kiss. We parted and I never met him again.
In the meantime, sister Rivczu wrote me a letter that she had typhus, asking me to bring her lots of onions because they had no medicine to cure her. The next day I decided to travel to Laipak to bring onions to Rivczu. No identification paper to purchase a train ticket; the only Jewish person among the Germans. I felt like I was in a cage with wild animals in it. But I had to get on the train. I built up my energy and walked toward the train station and waited for the train to Laipak. The train finally arrived and I walked up the steps and instead of seating myself on the train, I headed for the rest room and decided to wait till the conductor finished collecting the fares, and then I would come out and find a seat. It worked perfectly, except when I emerged from the bathroom I noticed an SS officer whom I recognized as being at our working place in the woods when we were digging holes for the tanks the previous winter. I turned to the other section and hoped he didn't recognize me. I must say, I was dressed much better than last time, and I looked much better than last time at the tank digging detail. Finally the train came to a stop and the big sign said Laipak. Now I had to get the onions and find the hospital Rivczu was in.
I got off the train, still hiding my face from that SS man. I hoped he would go the other way and I wouldn't have to see him. I started walking and I didn't know which way to turn. I remembered father saying, there is a Midrash: When you walk a road and you are lost, always turn to the right. So I turned right, and in the distance I saw a tall large building. I asked some children playing on the streets, is that your hospital building in Laipak? "Jawohl, Jawohl," was the answer. Now I had directions to the hospital by inquiring from the children, not daring to approach an adult for fear of their questions. Now if I could only get a hold of some onions I would be all set. I passed a large house with a lady at the front door shaking a carpet. I looked at her and she gave me a big smile. That's it, that's where I will get my onions. I slowly approached the lady and told her point blank: I need some onions for my sister, she is dying from typhus in the hospital down the street. Please help me to save my sister. Without any questions the lady walked into the house and came out with a bag of onions plus she gave me 100 marks. I thanked her kindly, and started toward the hospital, talking to myself all the way there. This big miracle that just happened to me, I would take it, I needed a lot of miracles those days. As I came closer to the large building that I saw in the distance, I still wasn't sure, that this was the hospital building. Finally when I came real close I was told by a nurse that Rivczu was on the first floor. As I walked in the hall of the hospital I noticed an open door and looked in. There she was waiting for me. We hugged and cried, and we were happy to finally to see each other. I handed her the onions and she ate them like apples, one after another, I also brought her some milk and cake. We sat and talked all about our other sisters and our cousin, that they were back at their old jobs, and were doing fine.
I had to leave after an hour, but it was a good hour. I had to get back to the Mitwaida cotton factory and still had to manipulate on the train, hoping that all goes well. We said goodbye and promised to see her next week. I arrived back in Mitwaida, I was surprised to find my Polish girlfriends that shared the apartment with me were gone. With a note: "Sorry for taking all the blankets and other stuff, we left for home, we had a chance to escape to Poland." I didn't care about all that stuff as long as I was alive, that was the most important thing, just to stay alive. The next day, the sirens were going every hour. I didn't bother to go to the bomb shelter for fear of being recognized and being killed by a bullet. I was very lonely at this time, but I was very happy to read Rivczuís letters. Thank you, thank you for the onions, it worked miracles, I feel much better now, I lost my hair. When I get home you will have to make me a nice wig. Love Rivczu.
This letter gave me so much strength, knowing my sister Rivczu was going to live. Sunday came and I went to see Shari and the others in the next village. We spent the whole day nicely together and Shari gave me more food to take home with me, which was great and wonderful. At work, talk was that the Americans were so close that they might be here any minute. Pictures of the Fłhrer were torn down; what a feeling, I couldnít believe it. Were we going to be free?
That night the shooting was real loud and soldiers were running from room to room. I played dead. I was scared stiff. I couldn't wait till morning when I gathered up my few belongings and headed for the next village where the sisters stayed with our cousin. On the way I saw dead bodies lying all over but I kept going, nothing would stop me from reaching my sisters. After walking for about 6 hours, I finally reached my destination. Sister Shari opened the door and we celebrated our reunion. But to my disappointment, this part of the country was not liberated yet, they must have got things mixed up. This went on for another few days, hiding under the bed and sharing the room with Shari while she did her daily chores. Until one day, the landlady overheard me and Shari talking late at night. In the morning she dragged me out from under the bed and threatened to report me to the authorities. I pleaded with her that I was capable of working and I would earn my keep. Since Shari was doing a lot of dresses for her, she gave in and told me to get to the fields and help with the planting. I worked for a few days and my hands gave out. I broke out in large blisters. I couldn't lift my arms. I said to Shari, I can't go on any longer. I decided not to go to the fields anymore and hid in the room for another three days. Sister Freidy was working for a very good family, they had no children and she wanted to adopt Florcza (Freidy in Czech). Crazy world, little did she know she was talking about a Jewish meidele from Munkacz. These were the same people that murdered close to three million Jews in Poland alone. This was unbelievable. Perhaps we will have to wait for Moshiach (Savior) to give us the true answer.
Things were getting very disturbing. The mayor of the village announced that all people had to leave the village by midnight. Trucks and people were running around like poisoned mice, what do we do? We decided that we would stay and we would not move anymore, rain or shine. That night the Russians occupied the village, and in the morning Shari took a white sheet and hung it out of the window. The Russians came and gave us all kind of goodies, and told us to wait at least one week before attempting our journey back home. We left for home May 18, 1945.
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