Saturday, May 3, 2008
Born in Auschwitz
by Jeff Heinrich
A woman's miraculous birth in the death camp of Auschwitz.
Honor thy mother. That's the motto Angela Polgar has tried to live by all her life -- a life that began in a death camp. The place was Auschwitz-Birkenau, in southern Poland. Her parents, Hungarian Jews, arrived there on a Nazi transport on May 25, 1944.
Polgar's mother, Vera Bein, nee Otvos, was 25 years old at the time and almost two months pregnant.
On the infamous railway platform where "selections" were made, Bein, as Polgar respectfully calls her, was not sent to the gas chambers. Instead, she was assigned to a variety of gruelling work details before becoming a guinea pig for sterilization experiments by a camp doctor.
By the horrific standards of the Holocaust, it's an ordinary story, perhaps -- except for one thing. The patient survived, and so did her child.
On Dec. 21 Bein felt labour pains. She climbed to the top bunk in her barrack, and there, aided by two other inmates, gave birth in secret to a baby girl.
The infant was tiny, weighing only one kilogram; she was too weak to cry but strong enough to drink the meagre offering from her mother's breast, and somehow survived the next few weeks in hiding.
Soviet Red Army troops liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945. Baby and mother were among the survivors, and they were an unusual sight -- indeed, almost unique.
The only other infant survivor, according to Auschwitz museum records, was a Hungarian boy, Gyorgy Faludi, born the day of liberation with the help of a Russian doctor.
Angela Polgar has decided now is the right time to tell Canadians her family's remarkable story.
She isn't doing it to shine light on herself; she even refuses to have her picture taken, for fear people would accuse her of self-aggrandizement.
Rather, she wants to honor her mother, a woman who never liked to talk about her experience because she thought it would be a burden to her daughter.
"She was a very, very special lady," said Polgar, a former clothing store owner who lives in Montreal with her husband, Joseph.
"My mother felt so terrible for all the people who had lost their children. They lost their babies, and she brought one back," Polgar said.
"And at the same time she didn't want me to have the memories she had. So she didn't talk about it."
Telling it now is a release -- and a duty. "It has nothing to do with me, this story. She did it. She's the one who went through all this."
And so Angela Polgar begins her story.
That both mother and daughter survived at all is a miracle in itself. About 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were exterminated at Auschwitz between the start of the organized killing in March 1942 and its end in November 1944. The death machine was at its busiest the summer that Polgar's parents and other Hungarian Jews arrived en masse to be liquidated -- more than 132,000 a month, according to Canadian scholar Robert Jan van Pelt's exhaustive study, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present.
"By the end of June, in just two months, half of Hungary's Jewry -- 381,661 souls -- had arrived at Auschwitz," van Pelt wrote in the 1996 book he co-authored with U.S. scholar Deborah Dwork. "At no other time was Auschwitz more efficient as a killing center."
They quote one survivor, Alexander Ehrmann, who arrived at Birkenau at night and was aghast at what he saw and heard -- especially the piles of burning bracken and rubble he saw and smelled through the barbed wire.
From the pyres came the sounds of children. "I heard a baby crying. The baby was crying somewhere in the distance and I couldn't stop and look. We moved, and it smelled, a horrible stench. I knew that things in the fire were moving; there were babies in the fire."
At selection on the platform, most visibly pregnant women were sent to die; so were babies, children, the obviously sick and the elderly. Others were spared for use as slave labour or fodder for medical experimentation.
Some of the inmates in Camp C, Auschwitz's barrack for Hungarian Jewish women and girls, were able to bring their pregnancies to term, but their babies were almost invariably taken from them right after and killed -- "mercifully" strangled to death by Jewish inmate doctors forced to work for the Nazis.
Most pregnancies never got that far; the usual clandestine practice was to abort fetuses before they could be born -- a life-saving measure for the mother, who was an easy target for liquidation if her pregnancy became too obvious.
One of the Jewish physicians who routinely performed this "service" at Auschwitz, a Hungarian gynecologist named Gisella Perl, described that and worse in her 1948 memoir I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.
Walking by one of the crematoriums one day, she witnessed what happened to one group of women who, promised better treatment, had revealed to their Nazi overlords that they were pregnant. "They were surrounded by a group of SS men and women, who amused themselves by giving these helpless creatures a taste of hell, after which death was a welcome friend," Perl recalled in her book.
"They were beaten with clubs and whips, torn by dogs, dragged around by their hair and kicked in the stomach with heavy German boots. Then, when they collapsed, they were thrown into the crematory -- alive."
Vera Bein escaped that fate. For the longest while, she kept her pregnancy secret, and was lucky her delivery came within weeks of liberation by the Soviets, unannounced, and not "helped" by any camp doctor.
Her survival -- and that of her daughter -- is a footnote of the Holocaust, but an important one.
"This does seem to be an unusual story," said Estee Yaari, foreign media liaison for the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. "Although there are others," she said, including one survivor born in Buchenwald in 1944, "it is a rather rare occurrence."
Surviving Auschwitz was one thing. Little "Angi", as her mother called her, was also lucky to have survived the war's chaotic aftermath, overcoming a bad start from poor nutrition that made her bones weak.
She was even lucky to get official proof of her arrival in this world: a birth certificate that her adoptive father got for her before the family left Poland.
Prepared in 1945 in Oswiecim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, the certificate gave her name as "Angela Bein." The surname was that of her biological father, Tibor Bein, a lawyer, who died of maltreatment in the camp.
"Auschwitz" was listed as her place of birth -- a place that has ceased to exist by the German name, except as an expression synonymous with mechanized murder. Auschwitz today exists only as a museum, and Angela Polgar has never been back.
She has a copy of her birth certificate, issued in 1989 by the Communist authorities in her hometown, Sarospatak, in eastern Hungary.
As further proof, she has her original 1966 Hungarian teacher's diploma, which also lists Auschwitz as her birthplace.
After the liberation in 1945, Polgar's mother trekked across parts of Poland, Romania and Byelorussia in a circuitous route leading back to safety in Hungary. There, Vera remarried, and it was that second husband -- Sandor Polgar, also an Auschwitz survivor, owner of a textile shop and a generation older than Vera -- who adopted Polgar and become her "real" father, the only one she ever knew.
Twelve years later, however, he, too, died, and mother and child were once again set adrift. Coming on the heels of the crushing of their country's revolution by the Soviets in 1956, and with a relative now in Canada to sponsor them, they started plotting their flight from Hungary. Vera left in 1966, Angela followed in 1973 with her own daughter, Katy. They settled in Toronto, where Vera worked as a kindergarten teacher and bookkeeper. Katy moved to Montreal and started a family, and in 1996 Vera moved here to be with them.
For the longest time, the family saga -- especially the Auschwitz part -- was kept private. The only public recounting came in the form of a short memoir, written in Angela Polgar's voice by her sister-in-law, a retired Montreal high schoolteacher named Marianne Polgar. It was published in a small Zionist journal in New York in 2000.
Then, last January, after a barrage of coverage in the media about the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Polgar decided the time had come to let the whole story be told. Polgar also unearthed a precious resource: an old audio tape of her mother recounting her time at Auschwitz. It was an "interview" Vera gave her granddaughter, Katy, in 1984 for a high-school project. The tape -- her final word on the subject -- will soon be registered as part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum's archives in Poland.
As testimonies go, it's a poignant one: words spoken over the telephone more than 25 years ago, a 30-minute inter-generational dialogue in which the subject sounds like she'd rather not be telling the innocent teenager just how horrible history can be.
"It's so painful to talk about this," Vera says at one point, as Katy prods her for details. "I was so curious to hear what she had to say," Katy, now doing her doctorate in cancer research at McGill University, recalled last week.
"My mother was so protective; she wouldn't let me read any Holocaust books, so this was my one-time shot to see what my grandmother could give me. The amazing thing was that she was never bitter about what happened to her. She just went on with life."
On the tape, Vera begins by describing the confusion of her arrival at Auschwitz in May, 1944. She remembers the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele sending her to the left after inspection on the platform while others were sent to the right, to their deaths. Worried she was being separated from the others and unaware of her good fortune to be spared, she remembers telling Mengele she was pregnant, hoping he'd be compassionate and let her stay with the others.
"You stupid goose!" she recalled Mengele snapping at her, ordering her to do as she was told. Healthy and strong, Vera was good stock for the camp's labor force. Mengele wasn't going to send her to her death, not yet.
She was sent to have her left arm tattooed with a registration number: A-6075. Then she was assigned the night shift in the ample storeroom in Camp A that contained mounds of confiscated belongings of other Auschwitz victims and inmates.
Because it was so rich in stock, the depot was dubbed "Kanada," like the land of plenty. Vera's job was to sort clothing, shoes, bedding -- anything the Germans wanted to keep for themselves.
Later, she was assigned kitchen duty, where she ate potato peels, a slight but vital source of nutrition for her and the child inside her. The rest of her daily diet consisted of ersatz coffee in the morning, "something warm, a soup made of grass" for lunch, and for supper a slice of bread with a smear of jam or margarine on it.
Then came hard labour outside the camp, building a road and working in a field. Vera was transferred to Camp B2, then Camp C, where she got to know children, especially twins, who were used for medical experiments by Mengele and fellow doctors before being liquidated.
It was only a matter of time before she became a guinea pig herself.
In October, now seven months pregnant, she was selected by Prof. Carl Clauberg's medical team for sterilization experiments. They injected some kind of burning, caustic substance into her cervix.
Right behind, in the uterus, was the fetus.
"That was me in there," Polgar now marvels. "The needles went in, I went to the right side, then the left side. Who knows what he gave her?"
Somehow the fetus survived. After the experiment was over, the patient went back to her barracks -- and then disappeared from the doctors' radar.
"Somehow Mengele forgot her," Polgar said. "I was so small, the pregnancy didn't really show. That was her luck. Otherwise, they would have finished her off, and me, too."
A month later, Vera was approached in her barracks by "a Jewish woman doctor"-- possibly the gynecologist Gisella Perl.
The doctor had a warning and an offer. She told her that new mothers usually "disappeared" along with their offspring after the birth -- sent to the gas chambers. She offered to give Vera an abortion.
"I promised her to think it over, because she really insisted on it," Vera recalled on the tape. "She said I was too young to be gassed, and she wanted to save me." But that night, Vera dreamt of her mother. "She told me, 'Veruska, you are eight months pregnant, and you don't do this, because (the fetus is) alive already and ready to leave. Believe in God and Hashem will be with you. Maybe a miracle will happen. But don't do it.'
"The next day, Vera gave the doctor her answer: she was going ahead with the birth. It happened on Dec. 21, in the barracks of Camp C. "I felt the pain and told the Block altester (the barrack's inmate supervisor) that I feel cramps and pain. She asked me to climb on the top of the bunk, and she came with me and she helped me to give birth to your mummy," Vera tells her granddaughter on the tape. "She knew how to do it, because she was the daughter of a doctor, so she had an idea about cleanliness and how to help a woman in labor. She brought hot water and clean sheets. She cooked a pair of scissors in hot water to sterilize them" before cutting the umbilical cord, she said. "So everything went quite easily." The infant weighed one kilogram, a little over two pounds "Mummy was so weak and so tiny, she didn't cry. So nobody knew she was born."
Three hours after giving birth, Vera had to leave her baby in the bunk and go outside in the cold for roll call -- what the Germans called the Appell.
Her daughter is still amazed she was able to do it. "What courage, what incredible strength she had to do that," Polgar said. "Remember, it was December. It was freezing, and they didn't have any coats or proper shoes, just wooden clogs that made them slip on the ice."
Just before the liberation, a final scare. Yelling "Schnell! Schnell!"(Quick! Quick!) the German guards herded surviving inmates like Vera into a tunnel beneath the camp and told them they would be exterminated. (It didn't happen, but to her dying day Vera retained a mortal fear of tunnels; once, trapped between stations in a stalled Toronto subway car, she lost her senses, screaming to be let out.)
After the scare, there was another miracle.
On the day of liberation another child was born at Auschwitz, Gyorgy Faludi.
His mother had helped Vera with her delivery; now Vera returned the favor.
The woman didn't have enough milk to suckle her son, so Vera did it. It was the beginning of a long friendship. The two families -- Faludi with her son, Bein with her daughter -- stuck together for the next few months of wandering back to Hungary. Vera nursed the two children and helped Faludi find her husband and return to their hometown, Miskolc. The war was over. Now the recovery began. After the liberation, no-one except Vera held up much hope that little Angela would live long.
In Budapest, Vera's mother's advice was to let the baby die. So, too, said the local doctors they consulted -- until one of them did a closer examination."(He) held me up like a chicken, by the legs with my head down. He wanted to see if I'd try to pull my head up. And I did. And then he said 'We can let that baby live.'" Her biggest problem in those first few years were her bones. "They were very weak, and I wasn't allowed to walk. So they put me in a carriage, and my father took me back and forth to school that way," she said.
In the street, strangers used to stare." Everybody looked at me ... and said 'That's a doll, not a baby.' They called my mother the crazy lady, because they thought she was only pretending to have a baby." Over time, though, with better nutrition and care, the child's bones got stronger, and at six she could finally walk unaided. The legacy of Angela's early years never disappeared completely. She's still tiny of stature, under five feet tall, and walks with a shuffling gait. But that doesn't seem to faze her. These days, she bustles back and forth to a computer class she takes in Montreal and doesn't seem handicapped by her physique -- or her past.
Sixty years after her birth she's been thinking a lot about her mother. She remembers her on her death bed, 13 years ago in a Toronto hospital. It was a sad, cruel end to a remarkable life. Vera's body was ridden with cancer of the spine and lung. While she lay dying, paralyzed, she had visions of Auschwitz. "She would say 'Mengele is at the door,' " Polgar said. "It was horrible. There was not enough morphine to take the nightmare away even from her dying minutes."
Vera Polgar, previously Vera Bein, born Veronika Otvos, died at age 73 on Jan. 28, 1992 -- a day after the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. "She did not want to die on Jan. 27," Polgar said. "She pulled the suffering through to the next day to die."
She remembers her mother for many things: the odds she overcame, the perseverance she embodied, the pain she concealed for so many years under a mask of optimism and a survivor's dream of renewal.
"She was very charming, never depressed," Polgar said. "But deep down, it was always there."
Like the ink in the number tattooed on her arm, the mark that Auschwitz left on Vera's psyche was indelible. Now, thanks to her daughter, so is her story.