There was a full house in the Ritsche Auditorium on March 23 as guest speaker Inge Auerbacher took the stage to tell her heroic story of survival during one of the world’s most heinous events.
She was one of nearly 1.5 million children that were held captive, starved, beaten, tortured and humiliated during the years of Nazi Germany’s reign of terror. She explains how the Jewish faith was incorrectly labeled as an ethnicity by Adolf Hitler. She said jokingly, “Hitler should have gone to school a little longer.” In reference to Hitler she also poses the question, “Sometimes I wonder is there a Jeckle and Hyde in all of us?”
Auerbacher recounts an evening historically termed Kristallnacht, German for the “Night of the Broken Glass,” in which rioting against Jews first broke out in their German village Kippenheim in 1938.
She remembers vividly that night how every window in the Jewish homes were busted out, leaving shards of glass strewn about the streets. Their treasured Synagogue was desecrated. Her father and grandfather were arrested and taken away with the all of the Jewish men to Dachau, while the rest of the family hid in a shed until the rioting ceased. Nestled along the Black Forest, Kippenheim was near the borders of Switzerland and France. However, it was too late to flee as all borders were closed. The Auerbacher family was trapped in a nightmare that was years from being over.
After a few weeks of abuse, the men were allowed to come home from Dachau. The family was forced to sell their home and they moved in with Auerbacher’s grandparents in Jebenhausen. Soon after her grandfather, a World War I German Veteran, died from what she described as a broken heart. His beloved country had turned on him.
Jewish children were not allowed to attend school with everyone else. The only school they could attend was in Stuttgart to which she had to ride a train alone at age 6. All Jewish students were forced to wear a yellow Star of David, which they had to also pay for, over their heart to mark them for all to see. These stars prompted others to antagonize them, calling them names and abusing them. Although she enjoyed learning and had a few Christian friends in her neighborhood, including her best friend Elizabeth (with whom she is still friends with today), her time there was short-lived.
In 1941, several Jews were removed from the village, including her grandmother. They were shipped to Latvia and eventually shot to death. Over 50,000 people were brought there, murdered, and placed in mass graves.
During the summer of 1942, the remaining family was officially deported to the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. They were only allowed to bring what they could carry. For Auerbacher, that was her prized possession, a doll she called Marlene. The doll now resides at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where she was donated.
She recalls the streets being lined with bystanders, whom she notes were “equally guilty,” callously watched as all the Jewish families were herded up and shipped away. She exclaims, “They watched, but nobody helped us at all.” Upon arriving in Terezin, a new string of horrors began for them. An epidemic of scarlet fever spread throughout the camp. The water was contaminated with typhus and hordes of rats, mice, fleas and bed bugs that plagued the prisoners. “Those were our companions,” she stated.
There were sheets lying all over on the floor. She remembers picking one up. They were covering dead bodies of the elderly and sick. The camp was an old army fortress surrounded by high brick walls with barbed wire. A few tried to escape, but it was impossible. Outside help would have been needed to get very far and remaining prisoners were punished with beatings for the ones who tried fleeing.
The men, women and children were all separated. Adults (anyone over 16) were all assigned mandatory work while the children were left to fend for themselves. Auerbacher describes how her hair was filled with lice and her body was covered in boils. The children spent their time trying to entertain themselves. “I was a terrific flea catcher!” she proclaims.
Children also spent a lot of time digging through the garbage trying to find food. A bread ration was only delivered to them once a week on the same carriage that removed the dead bodies from the camp.
She reflects on two people she would consider heroes during this tumultuous time of her life. One was a stranger on the train to school one day who did not want to be merely a bystander. The woman, risking being arrested if she were caught, walked by her and left a paper bag on her seat filled with rolls, which likely was her lunch for the day.
Auerbacher states, “I hope she is looking down from heaven and sees that this little Jew never forgot her.”
The other person was a Christian family friend and servant of her grandparents named Therese. Therese had taken two photo albums for the family and hid them in her own home. This feat also would have resulted in death if discovered by Nazi soldiers.
Auerbacher described a particular day when a “count of prisoners” was to take place. They were all marched into a ravine near the mountains by soldiers with their guns pointed at them. It was a cold nasty day, raining and muddy. Extremely frightened, they feared being shot, drowned, or beaten to death. As night fell, an order was sent from Berlin to halt what would have been their execution. Those who hadn’t died already were all marched back into the camp. On this day, her mother was severely beaten by a very bad SS man for simply holding onto her child. Auerbacher claimed this was the day her mother gave up hope. Many other prisoners died that day.
She detailed an instance in 1944 where the International Red Cross had gotten wind of the mistreatment and killing of Jews, so they sent a group of volunteers to check out the camp.
Unfortunately the Nazis received word of their pending arrival. They created a façade using children who were goaded into saying they didn’t need food and though they were incarcerated they were not being mistreated. The Red Cross was never shown the crematory on site where over 30,000 Jews were burned. They went away giving the camp a good review. Not long after this the entire camp was sent away to different locations. Many were sent to Auschwitz and immediately gassed upon arrival. Auerbacher was one of only a select few whose names were circled in red ink on the paperwork, which meant she would stay alive.
Finally on May 8, 1945, the Auerbachers were liberated by Russian soldiers but not before most of the documents detailing what took place there were destroyed. Hand grenades were being thrown at them as they tried to run free. They hid in a hole in the ground for some time with just a candle for light until it was safe to come out. At long last, a bus came and took the few surviving Jews away to safety.
Auerbacher maintains her Jewish faith to this day. As for her captors, she had this to say, “I do not forgive the people who did it. I do believe in trying to change the future but you cannot change the past.”
She ended the night by reciting a poem she had written years ago titled “Hold Me Tight,” which tells the story of a mother walking her child into the bowels of a gas chamber and trying to comfort her in what she quickly realizes will be their final hour. Many tears was shed by audience members who rose to give Auerbacher a standing ovation.
As she opened the floor to questions she said, “no question is stupid, but it is stupid not to ask because soon there will be no one to answer.”
Auerbacher and her parents immigrated to America in 1946 where she battled many years of tuberculosis but was finally able to attend school. She went on to college earning a BS in chemistry and became a scientist. She has written six books and many articles detailing her encounters. She has won several awards for her work involving human rights and has travelled the world relaying her story so that her people will never be forgotten.