Spectrum 296 and Spectrum 297. Prisoner 2065 Auschwitz
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A two-part Spectrum documentary. A moving personal account of life and death in Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Alwyn Owen interviews survivor ‘Lotte’ who spent three years in imprisonment and enforced labour [interviewee wanted to remain anonymous].
Spectrum 296, Part 1.
In March 1942 Lotte and her sisters were sent to a work camp along with other Jewish girls between the ages of 18-25 years. With only a night’s notice they were taken from their families, personal belongings removed and locked in a bare room. For five days the sixty girls were allowed to visit the toilet only twice daily and given a piece of bread with soup for dinner. On the sixth day they were locked into cattle wagons, with only buckets for toilets, with no food and nothing to keep them warm. As the journey progressed the cold grew and the Slavic soldiers were swapped with SS soldiers accompanied by Alsatian dogs. These soldiers bullied the girls along and called them “Jewish pigs”.
On arrival at camp the girls noted the sign above the main gate which read “Arbeit macht frei”, Lotte translates this as “Work makes you free”. As they entered the camp they noticed many signs with “Danger High Voltage Wire” on the fences and realised they had arrived in hell. Male German prisoners received the girls issuing them with a registration number. They were told to undress and leave their clothes in a pile. The male prisoners shaved the girls' heads, underarms and private parts whilst the SS accompanied by dogs harassed them to hurry up. Lotte explains just how traumatic the experience was. Following this humiliation, the girls were issued a Russian uniform each which included trousers, jacket and wooden clogs, with nothing at all else to wear.
Lotte and her sisters were assigned to Barracks Block 10 located next to Block 11, known as the Block of Death, from where terrifying sounds could be heard as people were tortured or executed. There were about sixty girls to each concrete floored room. On the night of their arrival they slept without being fed and woken the following day for a roll call at 4am. The call lasted for two to three hours during which they were ordered to stand to attention, if they moved at all, they were beaten. Lotte describes how they were given a piece of bread that night and the next day, after a day’s work, soup.
Four female German prisoners were assigned to each block to look after the girls but they beat them as much as the SS soldiers. For the first three days in camp the girls were marched to work carrying their clogs, as they were only allowed to wear them at work and made to sing German songs.
Labour involved a human chain passing bricks back and forth. Every night they had to stand again for two to three hours for role call. After three days of brick work they were taken to roads, damaged by war and forced to dig and clean the concrete. They were then instructed to cut down trees in adjacent fields. Lotte explains how they were harassed and kicked by the SS to work harder.
Being the strongest of her sisters Lotte completed her assigned digging and moved to help her siblings but had been intercepted by a soldier. He told them her number would be reported. Lotte and her sisters were terrified as they understood those singled out went missing. Conditions in the camp deteriorated and infections like Spotted Typhus were common place however as prevention was not possible many died. Two weeks after the work incident Lotte was told to wait outside the main camp gate where a group of girls were eventually marched into the men’s camp 500 metres away. Here photographs were taken of them before twenty girls in front of her were loaded into the back of a black van. Lotte was twenty-first in line and instructed there was no more room.
After hiding under her mattress in the barracks she heard the camp street fill with people and spotted her cousin, who didn’t recognise her at first. Her cousin told Lotte that she’d travelled with her parents, two sisters and brother; that her father and younger brother had been separated and sent to the men’s camp and that her mother, sister and brother had been sent to the gas chambers. Her cousin relayed that after she and her sisters were taken from their home her father went out of his mind looking for them. Lotte later discovered her father been beaten to death four days after arriving at camp whilst her brother had passed after six weeks from Typhus.
Rumours began they were being shifted due to overcrowding and the 'selection' process they had experienced on arrival began again. SS men directed the girls to either the left or right hand side of a hole; if they went to the right they were shaven and given new uniforms, if directed left, they were condemned to death. Every few weeks this process of selection and de-lousing occurred. One day she woke with a headache and found she couldn’t stand for roll call, the next thing she remembers is waking on a wooden table with an injection needle in her spine and told after screaming in fright that she was to be quiet or she would die.
Spectrum 297, Part 2.
Begins with a summary of the previous programme. Lotte continues to tell of how she woke in hospital where a nurse explained that she had meningitis and needed to be very quiet or they would send her away. Later the same nurse disclosed to Lotte that she had actually been unconscious for four days and one of the girls from the hospital had begged an SS soldier to take her off the truck destined for the gas chambers.
Lotte describes how an SS woman asked the girls in the hospital where she was recovering, “Who is able to run?” and knowing it would not do her any good to be sick, lied raising her hand. The following day the thirty girls who had raised their hands and were told to wait outside the hospital, trucks arrived and removed the remaining sick girls, who were never to be seen again.
Later Lotte was marched to another camp hospital but ran away, frightened, but also because she desperately wanted to find her sisters. After discovering them at Birkenau her sisters hid Lotte on their bunks. However, there was no water for washing or drinking and no toilets, just latrines. The girls therefore suffered from dysentery and known to fall into the latrines from weakness where the SS soldiers left them to die. Lotte describes how they weren’t allowed to visit the latrines after roll call and had to use their soup bowls at night.
Only provided with one cup of coffee or tea in the morning, soup at lunchtime and four inches of bread with margarine for dinner, they either went thirsty or drank the water from puddles. Bromide was added to the food so women stopped menstruating and Lotte describes how numb they felt - completely dehumanised. The girls were very weak and therefore tried to preserve the little energy they had for work. Some days they were made to stand to attention in the yard all day and if girls collapsed they were likely shot.
The girls lived in a survival mode. Some prayed to see the free world again but others lost their belief in humanity. Lotte’s sisters became delirious with typhoid, both collapsed whilst standing in roll call and taken to Block 26, the “so called hospital”. She describes how she begged the Hospital’s Block Senior to see her sisters for three days in a row but was kicked and told they weren’t there. On the third day she saw a stretcher full of clothing headed for delousing, sourced from Block 25 (the gas chamber) and identified both her sisters’ clothing amongst the pile.
Having decided she no longer wanted to live, Lotte began moving towards the High Voltage Wire fence but was intercepted by a former female Kapo, now Secretary to the Commandant, who offered to help. She gave Lotte some water and white bread and organised for her to start an indoor job. Lotte’s new work entailed sorting out the clothing that had been stripped from incoming prisoners then packed and shipped to Germany. The lighter work enabled her to gain back some strength and she realises it was the shift in labour which eventually saved her life. Lotte explains that out of the 70 - 80,000 Jewish boys and girls taken from Slovakia in 1942 only 236 survived, and all of them worked indoors. Lotte describes the treatment by SS soldiers during outdoor labour.
On the 18th January the girls stood for roll call, told they were moving and were marched to five different camps. On the 9th May, after 38 months of incarceration, the sight of approaching Russians made them cry. She got a truck ride to Prague on the 11th May 1945 and a week later arrived home in Bratislava. The first few days of initial excitement gave way to a mix of conflicting feelings, as the loss of her family sunk in. Life was not what she expected and she often found people to be selfish and lacking n understanding. After two weeks of freedom she collapsed from a nervous breakdown.
Lotte explains that although she began work and found the company of others also bereaved and alone, after one year she was toying with the idea of suicide. Luckily, she says, she met a man, got married and in 1948 they sought permits to leave Czechoslovakia for New Zealand. Lotte overcame her feelings of guilt about why she had been chosen to live by thinking she had been “condemned to life” just as other Jews ha been condemned to death.
In New Zealand she and her husband started a family and she tried to move forward by making it her obligation and duty, to her family and religion and humanity, to talk about her experiences so people would never forget. Lotte explains that she still finds it hard to convey the atrocities of Auschwitz to people and sees Auschwitz as a symbol of total and absolute death.
Reference number 21900
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection