“We had air, and if it was raining, we quickly licked the rain, and food, no food. It was unusual and terrible. And then we ended up in Auschwitz. It was the ugliest of ugliest of ugliest.”
Ann Rosenheck, a Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor, recalled this memory from the time she and her family were put on a train and taken to the Nazi concentration camp.
Rosenheck, 84, is on the Troy campus this week, and she spoke to a workshop for high school and middle school teachers about the complexities of the Holocaust on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
She spoke to the Tropolitan about her life before, during and after the Holocaust.
Rosenheck grew up in the Carpathian Mountains in Czechoslovakia, where she said she had a fairly normal childhood with three brothers and two sisters. She went to a regular school with both Jews and non-Jews.
While she was in school, her parents encouraged good grades and studying.
However, during the year of the German invasion, she went to school in three different places — Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland — within one year.
During the occupation, she said, she could not venture out too far from her home without fearing for her safety. As in other occupied areas, Jews did not generally attend school or shop during certain hours.
Her oldest brother, Joseph, was taken into the military and sent to a camp in Russia. While there, he was chased onto a land mine and was killed.
A letter came to Rosenheck’s family from one of her brother’s friends in Switzerland telling them that Joseph was killed. Rosenheck kept this from both her parents and her sister-in-law, who had just given birth to a child. Her parents never knew what happened to their son.
Her second brother was in his second year at a university in Prague. Two professors helped smuggle some of the boys into Russia, but once there, they were questioned as to why they ever left.
For seven years, she did not know that her brother was in the Gulag camps. It wasn’t until after the war that she received a letter saying he was alive.
Rosenheck’s uncle and aunt were able to board the last boat to the United States before being forcibly removed from their homes.
Rosenheck ended up living in a ghetto for a short time with her father and mother. Later, her sister and her children found them. They were all put on a cattle car on a train sent to Auschwitz.
Once taken off the train, they were divided into groups of men and women. Her father told her to take care of her mother and sister, so she stayed with her mother, sister and nieces while they were lined up.
“We were put in front of the Angel of Death, we call them, the worst of the worst, and he had a cane, and we would have to approach him in the line,” Rosenheck said.
The guard then gestured for her to step aside, away from her family.
“My mom and my sister realized that they took me away, and they started to scream,” she said. “My sister started to scream to me.
“She said: ‘Don’t be afraid. We are going to be together. We are going to be together.’
“My mother said the same thing. Meanwhile, three minutes later, they were put in the crematorium.”
At the time, she didn’t know what became of her family, but later that night she overheard women speaking about how those who stayed were killed. She said she did not want to believe them.
That night while going to bed, she said, a blond girl lay next to her. The next morning, someone said she was dead. Rosenheck said she did not believe them because she saw that the girl had open eyes.
“Thirteen years old, I did not know that open eyes meant dead,” she said. “A beautiful girl. Dead.”
In the camp, the women were often kept nude and with shaven heads. A man would shave them, she said.
“In the beginning nobody undressed, nobody let anybody cut their hair, nobody let anyone touch them, but they started, the SS, somebody was shot or beaten,” she said. “Then all of us would undress. Whatever they said, we followed.”
They were then given gray dresses and taken to the crematorium to take showers. Afterwards, they were again put into groups.
About 39 of them had their clothes taken from them and had to spend the night naked.
The next day, they were supposed to be killed, but the crematorium was burning so they couldn’t get in. During this, a group was being separated to leave the camp.
However, the group was all tattooed. Rosenheck was not. To get through, she was told to say that they had simply run out of ink if asked.
Two days later, the final selections were made. Ann was told she would have difficulty getting through because of her size and to run through quickly while waving her shoes. The men would notice her shoes rather than her. She managed to get into the middle of the group so the guard could not see her. Staying with that group, she got out of Auschwitz.
She ended up in a factory where she was to file the propellers of airplanes. After an incident where she stole a turnip to eat, an SS woman called her out. She was then assigned to care for the women’s room.
Slowly, Germans began to move out of the area. At this point, Auschwitz had already been liberated by the Russians.
They were then taken to another camp in Dachau, where she still worked for the SS woman. There she was often punished by being forced to hold up bricks.
Once while she was standing along the gate, a man in a white coat walked up to her and asked her questions in half Czech and half German. She told him she was Czech. He wanted to know who she was and why she was being punished.
“So I told him the whole story,” she said. “He told me that tomorrow he was coming with an entourage of doctors and you stay there at this and this hour. Make sure you stay there because I am going to do something.”
The next day, another Czech doctor came to her and brought her out to another big group of Czechs. She was then hidden under beds from the SS. Then, the Americans came.
“The first American, you don’t have to believe what he looked like,” Rosenheck said. “All this, whatever he had on, to me, it was gorgeous. That was it. The Americans came and chocolates were thrown.
“The Czechs were the first to be taken out of concentration camps and back to Czechoslovakia. That was a dream.”
Looking back, Rosenheck said that there was one German who was kind. One man in the very beginning, every time he was on duty, while he was walking them to the factories to work, would give them a sandwich.
After being liberated, she began to search for which of her family members were still alive.
“While I was in Budapest, a train would come in every day, and survivors were on that train,” she said. “I used to stay there and wait every day when the train came.”
Finally, she recognized someone from her hometown who knew of her brother in Russia. He said that her brother was very sick. Two boys from her city ended up helping her brother by nursing him back to health and getting him out.
She told the U.S. soldiers the names of her aunt and uncle who had immigrated to the U.S., and the soldiers were able to locate her family. She and her brother then worked to get their papers, but because of a strike, she had to stay in Europe for six more months.
While waiting in Munich, her childhood friend and now husband found her.
“I promised him then that if he cannot come to the United States that I would go back to Israel with him,” she said.
Rosenheck began publicly speaking about the Holocaust 21 years ago when someone asked her if she could write a letter to the United States. Then more and more people asked for her to write or speak on the topic.
“It’s quite a lot. Don’t forget, first of all, that I as a child lost almost all of my family,” she said. “But then, whoever was kind, that helped a lot, helped quite a bit. I only want to tell them what happened to all of us — how come 6 million Jews were killed.”
“So many Americans lost their lives,” she said. “So many country people lost their lives. I speak about it, I talk about it, I tell about it because it shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s what keeps me going.”
Rosenheck will be giving a lecture, open and free to all students and the public, at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Claudia Crosby Theater.