Interview
29 Jun 2018

Halina Birenbaum -- One day I was brought to the gas chambers. Then they ran out of gas.

Holocaust survivor, writer, poet, translator and activist Halina Birenbaum discusses the horrors of her childhood in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek and why, at 88 years of age, she continues to share her stories with new generations.

Wysokie Obcasy
Monika Tutak-Goll Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Halina Birenbaum -- One day I was brought to the gas chambers. Then they ran out of gas. - NewsMavens
Halina Birenbaum. Photo: East News/ Pawel Wisniewski

The following selections from Monika Tutak-Goll's interview with Polish-Israeli writer and poet, Halina Birenbaum, appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in December 2017.

Monika Tutak-Goll: When your mother was murdered, you were 13 years old.

Halina Birenbaum: My mother was gassed at Majdanek. That is why I’ve surrounded myself with older women my whole life; all my life, I’ve been looking for her.

MTG: You [and your mother] were inseparable.

I survived the Warsaw Ghetto thanks to her. I didn’t move a step away from her. She brought me to  the workshop where she sewed uniforms for Wehrmacht soldiers. I went there with her every day and hid under a sewing machine or a chair. After twenty hours of work, she got a little soup so we could survive.

When our apartment on Nowowiniarska Street burned, we hid in bunkers, basements and attics. Every day we woke up with the thought, where will we hide tomorrow?

MTG: What happened to you?

We fled constantly, but my mother never showed that she was afraid and I adored her for this calm. First, she explained to us that the train cars were taking people to work. Later, she explained that we couldn’t go on the train because they were for the dead and it wasn't our time to die yet.

MTG: So then where did you go?

To a bunker. It was so stuffy there that you couldn’t even light a match -- there were too many people and no oxygen. We were there for three weeks; the bunker was filled to capacity.  [Then] they discovered us and took everyone to the Umschlagplatz [the loading point for the camps]. Do you know what it means to end up there after a roundup? For a month you have been hiding in attics and basements with nothing to eat. And suddenly you’re at the Umschlagplatz. That’s the end of any illusion that they won’t catch you.

MTG: In the morning, the cattle cars came for you.

I held Mama’s hand the entire trip. It was May 1943, and it was so hot that people were collapsing from suffocation.  Eventually, I collapsed too. It was good to not feel anything anymore. But then someone crushed my face and I started to struggle. I tore off my shoes and walked over the people lying down -- over corpses -- to the window. I can’t manage to describe or understand it, but we weren't seeking dignity then in our own deaths. Death was everywhere around us. We only wanted to survive.

When we arrived, there was a crowd. I had wanted to get there so badly -- to this camp, and to this bath house! I had dreamed of a warm barracks, of a bed. We didn’t know yet that there were gas chambers there. We were glad that it was Majdanek.

MTG: Why were you glad?

We thought that we would survive and that they only murdered people in Treblinka. We didn’t know anything about Majdanek. On the way out of the bath house we received clothing -- me, a black ball gown. Can you imagine? A black ball gown. They gave us what others had left behind.  

Then they made the selection and suddenly, I realized that Mama was gone. I started to search for her face in the crowd and looked at Hela, my sister-in-law. She said only, “Mama is gone.”

MTG: What happened?

They had taken my mother to the gas chamber.  I could not imagine how I would live without her, but my sister-in-law Hela said, “From now on, I will be your mama.” If not for her, I would not have survived. She poured all the love she had for my brother into me.

Hela and I were in Majdanek for two months. One day they herded us to the gas chamber. I sat there in the chamber and thought, “How can this be? I’m going to die now? What's it like to die so mechanically? How does it happen?”

I couldn’t imagine my own death though I’d seen so much. And I thought, “this is impossible, something has to happen --  they must lose the war soon."

MTG: You were rescued.

That night Majdanek ran out of gas. The next day we ended up on a transport to Auschwitz. Hela was weak and very ill. She said, “it’s all the same to me,” but it wasn’t all the same to me. I felt that I wouldn’t die. I told myself, it’s not the rain -- which can’t ever be stopped -- these are people, and people can always change their minds.

Once they called us out from the barracks. We stood in the mud and it was pouring. It was time for a selection; Dr. Mengele was among those who did it. Whoever didn’t have the strength knelt in the freezing slush, dying. Hela was very weak and they ordered her to the gas chamber. But when I heard that, I clung to her and started to shout that I would never let her go. “Who is she to you, that you’re fighting for her so much?” asked one of the SS men. “She is my mother, my sister-in-law, my sister! I cannot live without her!” I said.“Then you’ll go with her,” he responded. But I wasn’t going anywhere. I stood as if someone had fastened my legs to the ground with cement.

The deputy commandant called me over. I rushed over to him and called out that this was my sister-in-law. He said, “Quiet! Because if you’re not, you’re going  in there!” and pointed toward the chimneys. “But if you’re quiet, I’ll let you go. Together with your sister-in-law.”

I didn’t believe what was happening. I still don’t believe it. He called the woman who kept the list and ordered her to cross off our numbers. I ran over to him to thank him and got slapped in the face for it. Later Hela said, “Halina, why are you putting yourself at risk for me, when I am already dead? I am only breathing with your breath.”

MTG: Hela didn’t survive.

She died, and I lost my mother again.

MTG: Then you were completely alone.

If I survived, if I didn’t survive -- by that point it was all the same to me.

MTG: [After the war] why did you leave Poland?

In 1945, I was 15 years old. I didn't know what to do with freedom. I had found my eldest brother, Marek. He was the only other surviving member of my family, and he took care of me. But I was lost. In school no one made friends with me. On the second day, someone left (Polish author) Julian Tuwim’s letter, “We, the Polish Jews” on my bench , so I would know that they knew I was Jewish. I couldn’t stand it. In 1947, I decided to travel to Israel.

But all that time, I had it in my head to write a book.

Once in Auschwitz, I found a cement bag, and there was a pencil lying next to it. I tore off a piece of this bag, stood in a corner, and started to write about how the train was arriving filled with people. I read it aloud to one of my colleagues. The Polish laborers working next to her listened too. One said, “If she survives, she will write a book.”

MTG: How did you survive?

In January 1945, when the end of the war was approaching, I was shot in the back by a guard. I ended up in the camp hospital, where people were typically finished off. But one of the SS men talked with me and didn’t kill me. Instead, he ordered them to operate.  And in this hospital there was an orderly, Abraham. He helped them pull out the bullet. He was 24 years old, and I was 15, but we fell in love. He didn’t want to get married and said, "There is no room for love in Auschwitz." He kept my bullet as a souvenir.

After the war I searched for his address and went there, but he was already dead. He had died two weeks after being liberated. After returning home, he had started to eat, but his stomach couldn’t handle it -- after all, he had been starving before.

MTG: You tell history from a woman’s perspective --“herstory". After Hope is the Last to Die you wrote, among other works, Calling for Remembrance and Return to the Land of My Ancestors. You also write poems, which you publish on Facebook and elsewhere. 

I’m 88 years old, but I still want to tell stories. We must always tell stories, and remember all of those who are no longer here. That is why I’m always going to schools and telling stories. 

MTG: You are on the International Auschwitz Council. You must discuss the rebirth of nationalism in Poland, about xenophobia, about young people walking in the March of Independence with fascist symbols. These things raise the question, “How is this possible?”

After Auschwitz, I don’t ask anymore how it is possible, only what to do about it. People learn history, but they don’t learn from history. That is why it’s necessary to educate, to tell stories, and not allow people to forget. And most importantly, not permit history to be falsified. I am shocked by what is now being written, for example, by Tomasz Panfil in [the Polish magazine] Gazeta Polska. I have no words to describe my pain and indignation at his words.

MTG: Professor Tomasz Panfil has written, among other things: “During the German aggression in Poland, the situation of Jews wasn’t so bad. True, the occupying authorities forced them to work...but at the same time they allowed the creation of Judenrats, or self-governing bodies.”

The worst is that Tomasz Panfil is not alone in his opinion about the “not so bad” times for Jews in Poland during the Nazi occupation. “They got their own areas, self-government, and work! So many favors for these ungrateful Jews!”

MTG: In October, the Lublin Institute of National Remembrance praised the Minister of National Education, Anna Zalewska, for honoring Dr. Panfil “for exceptional contributions to education". You expressed your opposition publicly.

I don’t understand how such people can receive any kind of award. Yes, we received areas in new Jewish colonies: Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Chełm. And something else: the whole vastness of heaven.

***

Halina Birenbaum (b. 1929, Warsaw)—A Polish-Israeli writer and poet. During WWII she was a prisoner in the German concentration camps: Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe. In 1947, she emigrated to Israel. In 2001, the Polish Council of Christians and Jews acknowledged her with the title, “Person of Reconciliation.” She has written Every Day that is Saved and Call to Remembrance, among other books.

--Translated from the Polish by David A. Goldfarb

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