In 1945 he left the infamous camp on a death march; 40 years later he came back - and left - a free man
My grandfather and father, Abraham and Fred Bachner, survived Auschwitz, but the exact fate of their beloved wife and mother, Erna Widmann Bachner, has remained a mystery for more than 75 years.
Erna, or “Mutti” as she was known to my father, was transported from Chrzanow to Auschwitz on February 18, 1943, but after that, the only “record” that remained was the word of someone who told my father that he saw Mutti as she was herded to the gas chamber.
Looking and inquiring for decades, my father held out hope that by some miracle his Mutti had not been murdered.
In 1981, my parents attended the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. At Yad Vashem, my father put an engraved stone as a marker that Esther Widmann Bachner was one of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
Nearly forty years after her murder, this gave my father some closure.
In 1988 he wanted to say goodbye to Mutti at the place she was murdered and took my mother and a video camcorder to Auschwitz. He was always a logical pragmatist and until I listened to his testimonial, I never knew that he had actually long wondered if Mutti had somehow miraculously survived the camp.
Although I was always told Mutti was murdered at Auschwitz and saw the memorial plaque in the synagogue we attended, I also always held out hope, wondering if she had survived. Even 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, whenever I read a story of survivors finding one another, I always thought of Mutti and how painful it would have been had she survived yet never been found by her family.
This idea haunted me until I recently read the following two sentences in Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945:
“February 18, 1943: 1,000 Jews are deported from a labor camp in Chrzanow to Auschwitz. All the deportees are killed in the gas chambers.”
The question whether or not Mutti survived finally seemed to have a concrete answer.
Walking around Auschwitz four decades later, my father pointed out where the orchestra had played, where the selection process had taken place, and where the gas chamber and crematorium were.
Inside the crematorium, my mother – also a Holocaust survivor – can be seen on the video reading a plaque on the wall and getting emotional.
My father, on the other hand, is very matter of fact and businesslike. As he walks out of the crematorium he says, “I am doing what very few people did. I am walking out alive.”
As he walks out the main gates, his hands are raised, he is smiling, and he looks victorious.
I can imagine my father saying, “This time I am walking out free.”
My father, who survived Falbruck, Graditz, Annaberg, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Dachau, gave several testimonials and spoke about the Holocaust at schools and synagogues for decades until he passed away in December 2008.
I watched his testimonials about his life before the Holocaust, listening to the grueling details of being forced out of Berlin, his birthplace, and settling in Chrzanow, where he had to work for the Germans. It was from there that the Nazis took him and transported him and his family to the concentration camps.
Over the years I heard his message of strength, perseverance, and love. I long ago embraced them, and they are now part of me.
My father did not talk in terms of dates so I do not know the exact sequence of events and the dates on which he was transported from one camp to another.
Several times he said:
“I lived hour to hour and day to day. I told myself, ‘I made it through this day and now I have to make it through the next day.’”
I imagine it would have been difficult to keep track of time and there was little to differentiate even which month it was. Surviving was what mattered. The date was insignificant.
More questions than answers
I know my father was taken from Chrzanow to a concentration camp on February 18, 1943, the same day his mother was taken to Auschwitz.
On September 30, 1944 his transport from Annaberg arrived at Auschwitz. In his testimonial, he recalled the infamous death camp as a place:
“Where the ovens were burning 24 hours a day and starvation, beatings, and hard labor were a constant. My Mutti (Mother) was sent here… and I was pretty sure she was murdered in the gas chamber. I knew I was one step closer to death.”
While at Auschwitz, he was selected for forced labor at IG Farben and then worked on the railway.
“Food was scarce and all we had were the clothes on our backs that were wet from the snow and rain so we took the paper from the bags of cement we had to carry and wrapped it around ourselves underneath the clothes. It made walking difficult, but we were happy for the little warmth it gave us.”
Though the Germans are known for their perfect penmanship and meticulous recording keeping, in the case of my father detailed accuracy seemed to take a back seat to the more pressing task of murdering Jews.
Besides the dates detailed above, we only know a few other specific dates from that indescribable two-year period of his life. He left Auschwitz on January 28, 1945, arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945 and was liberated on May 1, 1945.
Things changed dramatically in January 1945, as the Russian forces approached.
Worried about leaving behind any proof of their crimes, the Germans dismantled the gas chambers, burned documents, and removed evidence. Thousands of prisoners – the Nazi criminals’ greatest liability – were evacuated out of Auschwitz in the middle of January. They left not knowing where they were going, with no idea how long and brutal their journeys – which came to be known as “death marches” – would be.
I knew my father was on a death march out of Auschwitz and it seemed that he went directly to Dachau. I recently listened to a testimonial that I had not heard before. The interviewer asked my father the name of the camp he marched to from Auschwitz.
I now know that my father was sent on a death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen with a group that started out with over 1,000 prisoners according to his estimate.
Wearing only striped pajamas and wooden shoes, holding one loaf of bread, they trudged for 170 km.
Anyone who was not walking fast enough or fell to the ground was shot in the head by the German soldiers. Frozen corpses with bullets in their heads lined the entire route and were a constant reminder to either keep up or die.
January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months that 20th century Europe experienced, with blizzards and temperatures as low as -22° F (-30° C). Snow covered the ground between Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen.
My father remembered the prisoners somehow dragging their skeletal bodies.
“…we walked for days – how many I do not know. The Russians had detected movement and planes were flying all around, dropping flares to see if it was troops moving. The flares lit up the sky like fireworks and fortunately they did not think we were the German army and attack us. We came to a barn and were permitted to lie down in straw and rest up for a couple of hours. I made a friend and we kept together and promised to help each other as much as we could.”
When it was time to reassemble the next morning, my father’s friend said he could not go on and was going to hide in the straw and stay in the barn. My father tried convincing him to continue.
“When we march away, they’re going to set this on fire. It will burn with you in there. My friend stayed and there was no doubt in my mind he died. Imagine my surprise when I saw him at the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel in 1981.”
On cold blistery days in New York, I think of my Dad trudging through the snow on a death march.
I am bundled up in a down coat, hat, gloves and boots and cannot fathom how my father, or anyone could have survived days and miles of walking when they were starving, emotionally and physically abused, sick, and frostbitten. I ask myself how my father, who was 19 years old at the time and had been in concentration camps for almost two years, had that enormous desire to live.
He had defied the odds. He left Auschwitz with thousands of prisoners and was one of only a few hundred who made it to Gross-Rosen.
They finally arrived at Gross-Rosen, which was chaotic, dirty, and so overcrowded there was no room to lie down to sleep. With word that the Russians were approaching, my father knew the Germans would evacuate Gross-Rosen as they had Auschwitz.
“I made it through that horrendous death march when I didn’t know if I was dead or living. I didn’t know if I had it in me to survive another death march and I didn’t want to find out that I didn’t.”
My father saw a large crowd waiting to be transported by train out of Gross-Rosen.
“I did not know where they were going and did not care where they were going. I knew my chances of surviving Gross-Rosen or another death march were slim. I needed to get myself on that transport out and I did. I squeezed myself into the group and onto the transport.”
The transport, an open railroad car with no room to sit down, was headed to Dachau.
It was the middle of the winter and it was snowing.
“There was nothing to eat, and the only way to get water was to tilt your head back, open your mouth and catch whatever amount of rain or snow that you could… The area was being bombed and we felt the earth shaking. Sometimes the train did not move for days. I wondered what is going to happen to us… People all around were dying. Those who had enough strength to lift the bodies picked them up and tossed them over the top of the car.”
I hear my father say those words and am struck by how nonchalant he is in the testimonial talking about how the dead were handled, especially compared to his 14 year-old self who had felt compelled to find a way to bury the corpses he saw thrown into piles at the Trezbina labor camp, just a few kilometers from the Chrzanow ghetto where he and his parents were living. He returned to Trezbina with a horse and carriage and brought the deceased to the Jewish cemetery in Chrzanow.
It did not matter that he did not know them, not even their names. He was upholding the Jewish commandment of honoring the dead with a proper burial.
Then, just a few years later, after being immersed in a world where starvation, beatings, murders, gassings and cremating human beings was a daily reality, my father, like many others, became desensitized and immune. I suppose if they hadn’t, it would have been even more difficult to survive.
My father recalled it taking around 12 days to arrive at Dachau, but did not know for certain. He was transported in an open rail car that was standing room only when it left and had plenty of room to sit when it arrived. He weighed 80 pounds and was barely alive.
It seems plausible that he could have arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945, as indicated on the official paperwork. There, likely hoping to be selected for work instead of death, he claimed to be an auto mechanic. He was given two weeks to rest and regain some strength before he was sent to Muhldorf, a sub camp of Dachau to work building a factory.
Liberation for some
My father survived the death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen, and the later transport from Gross-Rosen to Dachau. The dates and places are not of paramount importance. To have survived either of those journeys is amazing. To have survived both is a miracle.
With the allied forces approaching, the Germans began evacuating Dachau in the middle of April and my father was sent on a transport heading towards the Alps, where the prisoners would likely be shot. It was six years since my father had to flee his home in Germany. He had spent the past 27 months in concentration camps.
A firm believer in “taking things into your own hands,” he later recalled, “I made it this far and now was not the time to give up.”
Undoing the wire on one of the small train windows, my father leapt from the train to freedom. He hid in a barn for a few days and came out when he saw white flags.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination and death camps. In a sense, that day marked the beginning of the end of the Holocaust.
Nonetheless, for millions of victims, January 27, 1945, was a date completely devoid of meaning. For some, like Mutti, it came far too late.
For countless others, it was just another day. Some, like my father, would not be liberated until weeks or even months later. Many were not even that fortunate; murdered in the waning days of the war, before they could once again know freedom.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.