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When the alarm sounds I crawl out of my bed and line up with fellow Jews. They tell us to stay in line and for everyone to keep up. We walk obediently forward— we cannot help but pray this excursion is for food: our bodies are so malnourished each step we take is painful. We soon reach a building where the Nazis separate us between men and women, the men go left, the women go right, I go right. We are then lead to a heavy metal door which, to my astonishment, is held open by my friend. “Adam!” I whisper as I walk towards the door, “What’s going on?” He bends down his head refusing to look me in the eyes and says “You are going to take a shower.” I look back at his hurt face and realize Adam is now a Kapo: a Jew who works for the Nazis in order to live in better conditions. Something in his face tells me this is it. The Nazis have persecuted and killed millions of innocent Jews, and I will be one of them.
I was born in 1924 in Berlin, Germany. My parents named me Anna Seiner after a long line of Anna Seiner’s in our family. At the time my parents were respected, middle class shopkeepers, but after 1933 when Hitler came to power as chancellor of Germany all of that changed. I was eleven in 1933 but I still remember how it felt to be singled out amongst my friends. One day we were all running around outside singing in our school dresses and the next none of them would come near me. I thought they were playing a game so I followed them, but when I ran into one of my friend’s mothers they told me to stay away because I was a “Jew.”
I turned away that day not completely understanding what she meant. Before 1933 the only difference I felt between me and my friends was that their families celebrated Christmas while my family celebrated Hanukkah. Even this only mattered around the holidays. My friends would try to explain who Santa was and I would try to explain what a menorah was. It was fun sharing traditions. I never thought celebrating a different holiday could lead to desolation.
When I arrived home I told my parents what happened and they looked at me with calm faces. “The holidays are not the only the differences between us and them,” my mother said, - “we also have different beliefs and go to different churches.” Something clicked inside my head then: my family had always gone to church on Saturday while my friends had always gone on Sunday. Then, I realized something bigger. “It’s about Jesus isn’t it?” I asked. My mother nodded her head and said “Never feel bad for being a Jew: we are the Lord’s people.” I nodded back at my mother and never forgot her words.
School soon became a nightmare. My friends grew to hate me, some even spat on me when I entered the classroom. The teacher wasn’t much kinder: she let my former friends abuse me both mentally and verbally. There was nothing my parents could do until it got so bad that I was sent to a Jewish-only school. I traveled to school on a bus full of Jewish kids I had never met, went to school with them, and then came home. Over time I made friends, but my parents continued to find displacement among others. In 1935 all Jews in Germany were stripped of their citizenship. This killed my parents, they loved their Germany.
On November 9, 1938 Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, shattered any hope of future happiness. On Kristallnacht, my parent’s lives were changed when angry men looted and smashed in the windows of their store. The police stood by and did nothing. My father tried to stop the angry people but in the end it only got him clubbed. My father was knocked out for a few hours after he was hit, but by then the store was completely cleared of food. Broken shelves were all that was left. I was fourteen on Kristallnacht, but I felt much older.
In the months that passed after Kristallnacht many Jews fled Germany. The Jewish-only school I went to was dwindling in students and I couldn’t help but hope we would leave too, but my parents would not hear of it. Germany was my parent’s home. They lived their whole lives here and wanted to stay. They thought things would get better, they prayed for it, but things never got better.
A German family in the neighborhood took us in when things got worse. We lived in their basement for three months in late 1939. Some days we would hear Nazis knocking on the door and eventually the family told us to leave because they couldn’t house us any longer. The Nazis were getting suspicious. My parents thanked them for their efforts and we left one night when everyone was asleep. We hid from the Nazis without detection for a week, but they soon rounded up all the left over Jews. Thankfully we weren’t killed and our family was still together.
Our family was to be deported to the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland as soon as possible. We were loaded onto trains called “cattle cars” which were full of other Jews, we had no possessions. We stood up for days on the cattle car, there were so many people that there was no room to sit, there was also a lack of water, food, and fresh air during our journey. Conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were also horrible. My family had gotten used to the generous amount of food our neighbors had given us, in the ghetto we were on our own.
I met a boy named Adam not long after we made it to the Warsaw Ghetto who taught me how to smuggle food in from the outside. I was thin enough to slip through the gate so he let me run to the nearest grocery with him and distract the storekeeper while he stole a loaf of bread. Part of me was sad that we had to undermine this storekeeper, my parents had run a store before too, but I would do whatever it took to keep my family alive. We became friends, even permanent smuggling partners until one day he simply vanished.
Disease ran through the ghetto like wildfire. My mother caught both scarlet fever and jaundice in the ghetto, medications were harder to smuggle into the ghetto than food, she died after one week. My father and I mourned my mother for the rest of our lives. My father and I lived in the Warsaw Ghetto until 1941 before we were deported again. This deportment was not forced. The Nazis came to Warsaw with another cattle car and said they were going to take some Jews to be “resettled.” My father and I gladly hopped on the train hoping to find better conditions and more food, but what we found was much worse. We found Auschwitz.
All that I had known about Auschwitz before I got there was that it opened in 1940 as a prison for polish criminals and prisoners of war. The cattle car was packed with people, even worse than when my father and I had come to the Warsaw Ghetto. This trip was shorter, considering Auschwitz was also in Poland. When the train stopped the huge metal door that kept us from the outside world was opened and a few dead bodies fell out. Disease had been rampant in the Warsaw Ghetto— it wasn’t surprising to see lifeless carcasses topple out of the train. The Nazis didn’t seem to mind it either.
Almost as soon as the bodies fell the Nazis pulled and prodded us to get off the train. After we were off the train men and women were separated along with parents and children. The last memory I have of my father is gripping tightly to his hand before two Nazis came and tore us apart. I cried hysterically when my father was ripped away from me, but the uncaring Nazis pushed us further and further apart until we could no longer see each other.
Nazis rounded up all of the women and children into one line, this line lead up to a doctor who would check us to see if we needed “special care.” In front of me was a set of twin girls roughly seventeen, my age, when the doctor saw them he told the Nazis to lead the girls to his special care unit for “further examination.” They looked healthy to me but I heard someone behind me say “It’s because they’re identical twins, they take away people with genetic abnormalities.” When it was my turn I was afraid the doctor might find something wrong with me, but to my relief he quickly glanced me over and shewed me forward along with most of the other Jews.
After the examination we were lined up to be shaved and tattooed. They cut my long brown hair up to my ears, it was a traumatic experience. My mother had always treasured my hair, I tried fighting them off, mostly for her memory, but a few of the guards beat me and held me down until the job was done. My hair was then put into a potato bag, they said it would be used for special submarine equipment and other military needs. Nazi workers then proceeded to swab my left forearm in order to tattoo a number on my skin. The tattoo hurt but the Nazis took pride in their work saying Auschwitz was the only camp that tattooed its inmates. My number was 98236— that number never faded.
Once the ink was driven into my skin I was given clothes: a striped brown shirt, jacket, pants and cap. I was then given two stripes of cloth that would stay hooked to the clothing, one had my number printed on it and the other had the Star of David. All of the prisoners were also given a bowl which would be used for our daily rations. A group of us girls were then taken to have a shower in order to be disinfected. The water was scalding hot, some girls tried to run but they just pushed the girls back towards the scalding water. After our shower we were lead to our sleeping bunker. The bunker was filled with thin, haggard women. I realized then that food conditions would be worse than the Warsaw Ghetto, not better. I was given the top bunk on one of the far beds, it would be better than sleeping on the floor.
My life hit bottom at Auschwitz. Every day I was hungry. Food was in short supply and tasted disgusting, but I was so hungry it didn’t matter. I was to work in an armaments factory where we manufactured the parts and supplies for the weapons of the German army. The work wasn’t hard, but exhausting. Putting parts together day in and day out got old, but if I refused to work I would be beaten, or worse. Some of the women I became close friends with had been sexually assaulted by Nazi men, one of my friends even died for refusing a Nazi’s wants. By this time my faith in liberation was fading. I stopped praying for myself but kept praying for my father.
One day in 1943, word got back to me through friends that my father had escaped the prison. He had been taken to a separate camp months before and had escaped into the forest with a few other Jewish men. My life had greater purpose when I knew my father was safe. If I could only escape Auschwitz I could reunite with my father. We could live in peace again, somewhere where Jews were accepted. There had to be a place like that. I fell asleep with my prayers only to wake up in the face of death.
So here I stand. The shower-heads above me, my clothes on the floor, Adam ushering everyone in, I was going to die. I am not sure how it is going to happen, but I know this is the end. I had heard stories about mass killings in our camp, I had seen a few bodies being carried out of buildings, but out of all the stories I have heard I am not sure which story this death will play out to be. The heavy door closes then. My fellow Jews stand in anticipation, some think this is nothing, just a shower for disinfectant purposes. Others know better, something is about to happen. Will they throw in a bomb? Will guns start blazing through the walls? No one knows.
Minutes tick by until people gradually start looking up. I stare upwards with them and see a large, copper Star of David above our heads, but beyond that I see a smoky haze descending towards us. Ah, so Zyklon B would be my demise. I had heard this story before. In the story Nazis would lead groups of Jews into chambers and let loose Zyklon B in the air, it would kill those inside the chamber in minutes and the dead Jews would be transported to the crematoria afterwards to be turned to ash. We treated these stories as folklore, nightmares, but now it was easy to see how real they were. I really would die here.
The people in the shower room started scrambling then, they beat on the doors and tried clawing their way through the wall, but it was no use. With my last minutes of breath I stayed calm. I would take my death head-on. I would die a proud Jew. My mother’s words were the last to filter through my head before the world went dark. “Never feel bad for being a Jew: we are the Lord’s people.”