Students at Northampton Community College had a rare opportunity to hear the story of a survivor of one of the most brutal chapters in human history.
With good humor and smiles that lit up the room, Holocaust survivor Esther Bauer shared her story and took many questions from the audience during her well-attended 90-minute presentation in the College Center’s Reed Community Room at mid-day Tuesday.
Her personal account was a priceless history lesson, one she shares with anyone who invites her to speak.
“The first 20 years I couldn’t talk about it. The second 20 years, nobody wanted to hear it. It’s only the last 19 years that I can talk.” She said it started when a neighbor who was a teacher invited her to speak to her class.
She told a story of a slow descent into the hell of Hitler’s Nazi Germany – as well as a full life beyond it. She survived three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and nine months of forced labor in a German aircraft factory during World War II.
She matter-of-factly recounted eating watery soup and rotten potatoes, and at times being so hungry that she ate grass. She told of a life without toilet paper, a toothbrush, pillows or blankets -- and sleeping with lice, fleas and bedbugs, once with a dead woman next to her.
She told of standing at attention for hours in the rain, snow and cold while the Nazis counted their prisoners, as well as standing at attention just to request permission to go the bathroom – permission sometimes denied.
She saw a friend standing next to her shot and killed for throwing bread over a fence, felt the lash of an SS guard who enjoyed beating prisoners with a leather belt and heard the screams of people taken from their prison barracks at night and driven in trucks to the gas chambers.
“It was just horrible, horrible. I’ll never forget the smell of Auschwitz, the burning of the flesh.”
She said some prisoners in Auschwitz committed suicide by throwing themselves on an electrified fence, including a good friend who was a teacher and no longer could stand watching children being killed. Bauer said it never occurred to her to do that.
“The will to live is very strong,” she said. “We thought tomorrow we’ll be killed but we hoped that tomorrow doesn’t come. Luckily, I survived all that.”
She said “thousands of other stories were much worse than mine. I was always somehow very lucky.”
A woman in the audience told Bauer: “You have such a phenomenal spirit of beauty and peace and love that I’m astounded by. It’s an honor to meet you.” The audience applauded.
Bauer’s parting advice to students in the room: “You have to see to it this never happens again. You are the future. That is my message to you: You have to see to it that this never happens again.”
The audience stood to applaud her.
There were a few big surprises during her talk.
“I hate to tell you, I’m an atheist,” she said. “I do not go to synagogue, I don’t believe in any religion. I have suffered too much for religion to believe in it. But I don’t want to influence anybody, please. That’s just me.”
She spoke of several non-Jewish Germans who treated both her and her family kindly during the war, including a Gestapo officer to whom her father had to report.
She said she does not hate the Nazis, but she cannot forgive them. “Hate makes you sick, hate makes you ugly. Of course, the people who killed my parents and my first husband and all my friends I would hate. You cannot forgive.”
She said 12-year-old children in a classroom once asked what she would do if she met Hitler today. “I said to myself: ‘What does a 12-year-old want to hear? I said ‘I would punch him in the nose’.”
Loss of civil rights
“I’ll be 89 next week,” Bauer told the audience. She was born Esther Jonas in Hamburg, Germany, in 1924, the daughter of Alberto and Marie Anna Jonas.
Her father was the principal of the Jewish Girls School in Hamburg. Her mother was a physician who worked as a nurse for the German army on the front lines during World War I. Her father was very Orthodox and would only eat kosher food. Her mother came from a Jewish family that knew little about Judaism. “She couldn’t read Hebrew and she had never been to a synagogue.”
Bauer said Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, when she was nine years old. At first nothing happened. But then, “every week there were new laws.” Jewish children couldn’t go to public schools or the university. Jewish teachers lost their jobs. Her mother no longer could work as a doctor, only as a nurse.
Young Esther always took a shortcut through a park to get to the subway station until a day when a sign was posted: “Jews cannot enter here.”
The Nazis took most of the money Jews had in bank accounts. Jews no longer were allowed to shop in regular stores. “There was a special store only for Jews.” After the British bombed Hamburg in 1939, Jews had their own air raid shelter “because we were not supposed to be together with the other Germans. They were crazy.”
“Things became progressively worse,” said Bauer.
She could only go to school until she was 15, then was forced to work in a factory.
Some of her Jewish classmates began to emigrate but her father would not leave. “My father said: ‘I have done nothing wrong, nothing will happen to me’. He was completely wrong.”
She said her father twice transported children to England, but she wasn’t allowed to go. He said: “You will take the place of another child. So I wound up in Auschwitz.”
People in the audience gasped -- the first of several times.
Around 1939, when she was 16, she had to start wearing the yellow star with the word “Jew” on it. She said the stars also were posted on doors of Jewish homes. The first morning she wore the yellow star on a subway, a man got up her and gave her his seat, saying: “Please sit down.”
Jews had to surrender their jewelry, their silverware, even their radios. One day a Nazi even took their apartment, forcing them to move into a Jewish apartment that had no heat or hot water.
The Nazis closed her father’s school, where her mother also worked as a doctor and teacher. “That must have been the worst day of his life.”
Into the camps
She was 18 when she went into the concentration camps and 21 when she was liberated. She said she spent the three best years of her life being a prisoner. “I don’t think I ever cried. I accepted. You know, the Germans are funny people. When you are told to do something, you do it.”
When Esther was 18, the family got a notice that they had to leave. Each person was allowed only one suitcase. They were taken by train to Terezin in what is now the Czech Republic – a concentration camp better known as Theresienstadt. “We walked in and, from one minute to the next, we were prisoners.” Their luggage was left in the courtyard. “Needless to say we never saw it again.” They had to sleep on a stone floor and men, women and children shared wooden slat latrines.
Her father has been told he would have a school at Terezin. But he had to shovel coal and died within six weeks of meningitis. “He just couldn’t do the work. But I always said he died more of a broken heart. They lied to him so much that he could not accept.”
She decided to marry Jan Leiner, an older Czech prisoner known as Honza. “You could get married but you couldn’t live together. But we found ways!” Only three days after they were married, he was taken from the camp. She was told she could follow him and decided to do so, even though it meant leaving her mother. “To say goodbye to your mother is very hard,” she said. “Unfortunately, I never saw her again.”
Rather than being reunited with her husband at a work camp, she was taken by train to Auschwitz in Poland, “the worst of all camps. We came in and there stood Dr. Mengele -- you may have heard of him. He said ‘you go right, you go left’.” Bauer was in a group sent to the showers. Because they already knew all about Auschwitz, they figured “this is the end. But water came out.”
Later she was transferred out of Auschwitz back to Germany, where she worked in an aircraft factory for 12 hours a day. “The only act of sabotage I could do was either make the rivets too short or too long. I say no airplane will ever fly that I worked on.”
As the war progressed, the factory ran out of materials to make airplanes, so in April 1945 she again was put on a train and taken to another camp—Mauthausen in Austria –“a horrible, horrible camp.” She said it had a stone quarry where the Nazis killed thousands by making them jump.
Bauer was very ill when the American troops liberated that camp in May 1945, but remembers thinking: “From one minute to the next, we were free. I will never forget that moment. I said to myself: ‘Now I want to live. Now I want to be happy’.” She was 21 years old. The Americans nursed her back to health.
She lived in an apartment in Linz, Austria, after being liberated and remembers one of the first things she did was buy herself “a non-kosher frankfurter on the street. That was the best bite I ever had.”
Not until after the war did she learn her mother and her husband had been killed at Auschwitz. She went back to Hamburg and found the same Nazi still living in her parents’ apartment. The British authorities would not evict him.
Bauer came to the United States in 1946 and married her second husband two years later. He died 19 years ago, after 46 years of marriage. “I have one son and two grandchildren.”
“Ten years ago, I met my boy toy Bill,” she said, drawing laughter and applause from the audience. She and William Engle live in Yonkers, N. Y.
Engel knows her story so well that he quietly prompted her whenever she paused.
About 150 people attended the free program, which was open to the public.
Several people embraced Bauer after the program. After nearly everyone left the room, she and Engle exchanged a hug and a kiss.