I am a Holocaust survivor, but my story cannot be reduced to that one fact.
My father, Simon Mendelsberg, was born in Radom, Poland, and was a solder in the Russian army. He was captured by the Germans during World War I and taken to Berlin. He settled there after the war and became a wholesaler dealing in silver. He met my mother, Marie Hahn, who was born in Berlin, and they were married in 1920.
I was born on April 25, 1925. I was an only child. My parents were Zionists, and I attended Theodore Herzl Schule, a Zionist school. I learned to speak Hebrew there, though at home we spoke German. I was a member of Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth movement. We were brought up with the expectation that one day we would make aliyah.
We attended synagogue every Friday night and Saturday morning. We often went to our relatives’ home for the Sabbath and other holidays. We kept kosher, but in Nazi Germany we weren’t allowed to slaughter animals in a kosher way, and so we seldom had meat. But when my father traveled to Poland, he would bring back kosher sausages.
I remember when Hitler took over the government in 1933. At age eight, I didn’t have a great understanding of what was going on, but I knew my parents and grandmother were very upset. That’s when the persecution started. We could only sit on the yellow benches in the parks, and we could not play with non-Jewish children. Even when we went to a Jewish vacation spot, the Hitler Youth came around at night chanting, “When the Jews are stabbed, blood will spill.”
The severe persecution began in 1938, when I was thirteen. We were able to leave Germany that year because of my father’s Polish citizenship. We packed our bags as if we were going on holiday that September and traveled to Nice (in southern France).
We had no French friends and lived off the jewels my father brought with us from Germany. Soon the Vichy government (collaborators with the Nazis) started to arrest Jews and other “undesirables.” Those from Germany and Austria were sent to internment camps. We were spared because my father was Polish.
The mass roundups of Jews by the Vichy began in 1942. We hid in Montboron, then tried to escape to Switzerland. But the French police stopped us at the border and sent us by train to Rivesaltes, a French internment camp, in August 1942. Everything was very primitive. We slept on the ground and there was hardly anything for us to eat. In October, my parents were sent to the internment camp in Drancy. I was seventeen. I cried continually for three days. I never saw them again. Later on we learned that they had been sent to (and died) in Auschwitz.
Soon afterwards, Oeuvre de Secour aux Enfants (Organization to Save the Children) smuggled me out of the camp. They took me to an establishment for women and children who had fled Spain’s dictator, Franco. I was one of a few Jewish teenagers who had to do all the domestic work for about 150 people.
Six months later, friends in the Resistance moved me to St. Martin de Vésubie, near Nice, where I lived with more than 1,100 other Jewish people, most of us young. There I met a young Jewish man from Austria named Aaron Gottlieb, whom I married in August 1943. A month later, the Germans invaded Nice. About 800 of us from St. Martin de Vésubie left on foot and climbed the Alps into Italy. We were housed and taken care of by Italian peasants as we went through the mountains.
But when we arrived in Italy, the Germans were waiting for us. We climbed higher into the hills and lived as vagabonds. We slept in stables and spent the days with the Italian farmers, who fed us and were very kind to us. An Italian priest brought us to a place from which the Resistance movement was operating. There were a few thousand Italian partisans there. My husband had served in the French Foreign Legion, so they made him a lieutenant in the Resistance. They went by night and blew up bridges and streets. I helped provide them with food and munitions.
But in March 1944 the Gestapo discovered us, brought us down from the mountains in trucks and imprisoned us in a town called Ceva. A few hours later, my husband was taken, interrogated and murdered. I was just eighteen and we had only been married eleven months. I was devastated. The Nazis imprisoned me in Turin for two weeks, then put me in a cattle car with hundreds of other Jewish people. There was no room to sit down. We had no food or water and didn’t know where we were going. Four or five days later, the train arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Nazis separated those who could work from those who could not. The workers were taken to the camp and the rest were sent to their death. Even though we heard about this in the camp, we could not believe it. Later, of course, we saw the ovens and the smoke. And then I thought of my parents taken from me two years earlier.
We were not spoken to. To the Nazis, we were no longer humans; we were like cattle. In the morning they would look for people to do useless manual labor, moving rocks from one side of the road to the other. I knew I could not survive the labor, so I would take a pail and a broom and act as if I were under orders to clean the toilets. Later I was assigned to restore the leather on old shoes.
I got jaundice and was sent to the infirmary. They didn’t take care of us there. I caught scarlet fever, then pneumonia and malaria. I was in the infirmary for seven months. People died like flies around me, but I was able to recover their bread. Huge rats crawled over our feet.
Twice Dr. Josef Mengele came through to send the sickest of us to the gas chambers. He would look at the medical chart and give it back to us if we “passed.” If not he would keep the chart. When Mengele examined me, I decided to look him straight in the eye and “stare him down,” although I was naked in front of him and the other soldiers. He gave me the chart back on two different occasions and I escaped the gas chamber.
On January 17, 1945, the Nazis began to evacuate Auschwitz. They set fire to the crematorium to hide their crimes. They took with them all who were still able to walk – 60,000 prisoners – on a death march (15,000 died). I was more dead than alive, and I hid in my bunk. They left me and 7,000 others behind.
Little by little I regained my strength and could stand up again. We found a small amount of food in the pantries. We had no shoes and wore rags. We burned furniture to warm ourselves and to cook. On January 27, the Soviet army liberated us from the camp. I weighed 66 pounds and my knees were thicker than my thighs, but I had somehow survived.
The Russians transferred us to a repatriation camp near Krakow, Poland. There, we began to regain our strength. We danced and made music in the evenings. It didn’t seem like the Russians were making plans to send us home. So my close friend Laura Geisinger, two other Italian women and I left by foot over the Carpathian Mountains through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We continued by train, traveling on the roof of one of the carriages until we arrived in Trieste, Italy, at Laura’s family home – now empty. All of her family had died in the camps. When we shared our story with people in Trieste, nobody believed us. What happened was just so unthinkable and inhumane.
I returned to Nice, where I worked as a tour guide for American soldiers on holiday. I found my former art instructor and took up painting again. In 1947 I moved to the Pletzl, the Jewish quarter in the Marais district of Paris and became a tailor for a fur coat company. I applied to an art school in Paris, but because the war had cut short my education, I was not accepted.
I met a Sephardic Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor. We lived together and had a baby daughter, Myriam. We moved to Nice when Myriam was six months old. As Myriam’s father was carrying a chair up to our fifth-floor apartment, he sat down to take a break and suddenly died of an embolism.
Myriam and I moved to Marseilles, where I worked as a laundress at Aliyat ha Noar (The Jewish Agency for Israel). They were educating Jewish orphans and sending them to Israel. At work I met Paul Sandelbaum, who had fought with the Resistance. He had been captured and imprisoned for four years, then sent to Dachau, Buchenwald and other camps, spending eight more years as a prisoner.
We moved to Israel in 1949, where I gave birth to our daughter Judith in 1954. But life in Israel was very hard. Poverty was the norm and we lived in a shanty. Then came the Suez War in 1956. There were bombings. Paul said to me, “I didn’t nearly die in the camps to be blown up by the Arabs.” We decided to return to Germany. Life was easier than in France. We found a nice apartment, and I got a very good job in the art world that I remained at for ten years.
When Myriam was eighteen, she moved to Israel and lived in a kibbutz. She met a young Greek man from Cyprus named Janis. They came back to Berlin and were married. Myriam gave birth to a son. One Sunday in February 1984, Myriam and her little boy, four years old, were alone in the house. When Janis came home, he found his son playing in the living room by himself and Myriam dead in the bathtub. How she died remained a mystery and, of course, a terrible shock. My son-in-law, Janis, took his son back to Cypress, and to this day I have never seen them again.
My other daughter, Judith, had married a Filipino, Ben, a year earlier. They lived in Israel, so Paul and I decided to return there and moved to Tiberias. But Paul, who had loved Myriam as if she were his own child, took his own life out of grief in November 1984. We had been together for 31 years. I moved in with Judith and her husband.
In 1990, we all moved to France – Judith and Ben to Perpignan, while I went back to Nice. Although we were now a four-hour drive from each other, my daughter and I kept in close touch. In fact, we continued to explore a subject that had always fascinated us – spirituality.
As far back as 1970, when we were living in Germany and Judith was just sixteen, we started our spiritual search. We found yoga and, through yoga, Buddhism. We went to Buddhist seminars and meetings. I didn’t go that far into Buddhism, because of course I was still Jewish! We went to libraries and studied every religion. We were looking for the truth.
In the 1980s at one point I lived in a hotel in Tiberias, in a room on the eighth floor. I could see the Sea of Galilee. One day, I had a vision in which I saw Yeshua (Jesus) walking on the lake. It wasn’t a dream; I just saw him! So I told my daughter and I got more and more interested in Jesus and read many books about him.
When we moved back to France, we were still seeking and reading. Then one day, I was walking on the beach in Nice, and I met a Christian woman named Rosemund. We spoke about Jesus for quite a while. When we began to read the Bible together, it suddenly became very clear to me that Jesus was our Jewish Messiah. I talked with my daughter, and over time she too came to believe in him.
Jesus was Jewish. He taught from the Hebrew Scriptures. In his day the New Testament didn’t exist. He died for our sins voluntarily – no one murdered him, neither Romans nor Jews. Some people claim the New Testament is anti-Semitic. What an idea! It’s not in the least bit anti-Semitic. All you have to do is to read it and you will find a book that is thoroughly Jewish.
I’ve always wondered why God took me out of the concentration camp and restored my health – good health, I must say. There are millions that died. I was not saved thanks to my own chochmah (wisdom). I recognize that God saved me, but lama davka ani (why me?). I don’t know the answer.
Since I have come to know Yeshua, I have a whole different way of thinking. I don’t need to go to the cinema to be entertained or a lot of material things to be happy. I am just more content. Most of all, I have peace in my heart knowing that my sins are forgiven and that one day I will be with my Messiah in heaven.