In an interview with Italian journalist Francesca Romana De’ Angelis, published on Wednesday, 27 January, in the daily edition of L’Osservatore Romano, Edith Bruck, Holocaust survivor, author, journalist and translator shares memories of her horrific experiences. Edith Bruck, now almost 90 years old, has dedicated her life to bearing witness, keeping a promise she made to two strangers in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, who asked her to bear testament: “Tell our story. They will not believe you, but if you survive, tell it, for us too”. Edith kept her promise. The following is a translation of excerpts taken from the interview.
What were the first signs of the persecution?
There were three Jews in the class, besides me, Piri and Eva, all confined to the last row. Once, our classmates threw me into the nettles; another time they sicced dogs on us. My friends were expelled from school. I had the privilege to continue for a while thanks to the decorations my father had earned in the war. Sometimes at the fountain they would push us to the end of the queue or someone would spit in the water buckets. And then the restrictions. We could not leave the house after 6 pm or leave town or travel. “The world is sick”, my mother would say, “but God will save us”. This was her unshakable faith. It was a great shadow that continued inexorably to expand until total darkness fell and the senseless horror of the deportation began.
Two words often return in your storytelling. The first is “bread”.
The hell started around bread. It was the Spring of 1944 and Jewish Passover had just finished when a neighbour gave us some flour. My mother was happy about that unexpected luxury. Her hands flew cheerfully to mix the ingredients, then she placed the dough in large wooden bowls to rise. At dawn she was getting up to light the fire when two gendarmes knocked so violently on the door that it unhinged. They took us and all the Jews of the village away first in horse-drawn wagons then by train to the county seat, where we were shut away in the ghetto. Mamma grieved over that abandoned bread: those five loaves were the life that was leaving us. Bread accompanied me in some way throughout my entire desperate life as a deportee, as a desire and as a thought of normalcy. I never stole a crust of bread from anyone, despite the rabid hunger, and I remember that my mother’s last act on that train that carried us to Auschwitz was to give a slice of bread to a woman who was nursing a newborn.
What happened in the ghetto?
We were prisoners unable to imagine our future, yet something really beautiful happened. A sort of democracy spontaneously arose. Rich, poor, and destitute were together, when a very rigid social hierarchy existed in the town, which divided us. For the first time I played with a doctor’s son. And then my father, who had never had anything in his life, had the privilege of being cantor of the Torah. My mother looked at him with dreamy eyes and was moved listening to him. Another extraordinary thing also happened. A non-Jewish friend of my father brought a cart full of food. That gesture struck me so deeply not only because for us it was manna that fell from heaven but because it had come from Gyula, the father of Endre, my first and delicate love who helped me discover how enchanting it is to look at each other when in love. Thanks to him my father once again became a protagonist: poor as he was, he was able to feed others. Gyula’s generosity was not just food but light.
Here you have just mentioned the second word that you often use, “light”.
That precious cartful of food was a light, just as there were other moments of light. It was a week before the end of May when they loaded us into a cattle car. I remember the sense of shame and humiliation before the Nazi who said “bon voyage” to us in our language. We were no longer Hungarians, just Jews, and above all we were no longer human beings to them. The train went on and on, and we did not know where to. From those terrible moments I remember another light, my mother. She combed and braided my hair, tied it with two red ribbons and held my hand tightly in hers. I lived the tenderest days of my life, although I suddenly thought: if mamma is being so nice, it’s over for us. And then there were lights which did not seem so at that time and which I only recognized later on.
We arrived in Auschwitz and as soon as we got off the train two Germans prepared to sort us to one side and another. At that moment we did not know what that division meant, but we learned immediately: on the right you were sent to forced labour, that is to death by starvation, cold and exertion; on the left to the gas chamber. Judith was pointed to the right, mamma and I to the left. A German stopped us, pressuring me to go right. I held onto mamma, shouting “no, no!”. My mother begged the soldier to leave me with her and also told him that I was her youngest daughter. In response the soldier struck her with the heel of his rifle, repeating to me “right, right”. Mamma said only “obey” and I was forced to go to the right, crying desperately. That German tearing me away from my mother saved my life. They took us to bunkhouse 11, a sign hanging from my neck with the number 11152, which from that moment replaced my name. My head was shaved; gone were my beautiful braids that mamma tended so lovingly. They made us put on a rough grey shirt and clogs on our feet. I did nothing but cry out for mamma. One morning Alice, a kapo, a Polish Jewish attendant on behalf of the Germans, took me to the entrance of the bunkhouse and said to me: “Do you see that smoke? They made soap out of your mother”. I said nothing to my sister. I forced myself not to believe her words, but I continued to cry for days.
It is an episode of unthinkable barbarity.
This was the concentration camp, systematic cruelty, absolute evil. Yet, as I said before, there were some moments of light. In Dachau, where we worked digging trenches and railroad ties, one day a German soldier threw his lunch tin at me to be washed, but he had left some marmalade for me at the bottom. Some time later we were selected, my sister and I, as part of a group of 15 women to work in the kitchens of a nearby castle where several officers were staying with their families. Had it not been for the slap that the SS gave us every morning for no reason, or for the hanging of children outside the camp that we were forced to witness, those were the least miserable days of our life in the concentration camp.
A peel, a leaf, a small piece of vegetable, in the kitchen there was always something to secretly put in your mouth. And here one day another light was lit. The cook to whom I was handing cleaned potatoes asked me my name. I said “Edith” with a soft, trembling voice, and he added: “I have a little girl your age”. Then he pulled a comb out of his pocket and looking at my head with my newly regrown hair, he gave it to me. It was the feeling of being before a human being after a long time. I was touched by that gesture that was life, hope. A few gestures are enough to save the world.
How did you survive amid so much horror?
I do not know how to answer you. My parents and one of my beloved brothers did not survive. I think I was saved only thanks to my sister. She held me in her arms, told me repeatedly that she would never leave me, led me to believe we would soon find our parents and then she called me “Ditke, Ditke”, the term of endearment we used in our family. For me it was the sound of love and tenderness.
What do you fear today and what gives you reason to hope?
I fear intolerance, lack of dialogue, mistrust of others. I fear the winds of fascism that blow ever more often and spread dangerously in our lives. I have hope in the younger generations, in a more rooted and widespread human and civil consciousness. I have hope in this great Pontiff, Francis. When I met him he said to me simply “nice to meet you”, then he smiled and embraced me. There was such a reassuring human warmth in him. I appreciate his clarity, the simplicity of one who speaks to be understood, the power of his convictions, his understanding of human frailties, the humility to say “Who am I to judge?”. With Pope Francis I think: “this is a man”, and I feel a sense of hope.
Journalism, television, cinema, translations, you have done so many things but above all you have always been committed to writing and testifying to the tragic experience of the concentration camps.
“If understanding is impossible, knowing is essential, because what happened can come back”. Those are the words of Primo Levi which I have made my own. I have never harboured hatred or feelings of revenge, but rather incredulity and endless pain. Evil begets only evil. I am proud to have had a victim father and I would have been ashamed to the depths of my heart of an executioner father. Remembrance is suffering, but I have never tried to avoid it. Even enlightening a single conscience is worth the effort and pain of keeping alive the memory of what has been. For me, to remember is to live and to write is to breathe.