GUSH ETZION - At 85, Leah London Friedler still has a beautiful face and a charming, almost cheeky smile. Her family had always known she survived Auschwitz, but it was long taboo to mention it in her presence. But a family trauma caused Leah to break her silence, and she led her daughter, Adina Bernstein, to a locked drawer where she showed her a letter of hope she’d written as a teenager, after the death camp was abandoned by the fleeing Nazis. From then on, she revealed more of her letters from Auschwitz, and her story of survival finally unfolded after decades of secrecy.
Leah describes her childhood as a very happy one, being an only child always in the company of a lot of family and friends. “Everything I remember from then is beautiful. I had a very loving mother and father. We were not very rich, but for my grandparents I was the only grandchild, so they always bought me nice clothes. I was a spoiled child,” she beams.
But by the age of 16 she had experienced two invasions: the Hungarian occupation of Northern Transylvania including her home city of Oradea in 1940, followed a few years later by the Nazis. The arrival of the Hungarians saw the first organized discrimination against Jews in employment and schools. There was also the conscription of 18-year-olds into the army, including her cousins, forcing them into labor and sending them off to the front against Russia. “They didn’t come back,” she says quietly.
Leah’s parents felt something was wrong when they stopped receiving letters from family living in former Czechoslovakia and Poland but, like so many, no one could imagine what was to come. With the arrival of the Nazis, schools closed, the curfew came down, non-Jews were told to evacuate the Jewish quarter, the Jews were forced to wear the yellow star, and overnight a wooden fence cornering off the ghetto went up, enclosing, she says, 30,000 people.
Leah was living just outside the ghetto with her parents, in a boy’s orphanage run by her father. When the Nazis came to force the Jews into the ghetto, the caretakers of the synagogue opposite implored her father to look after the Torah scrolls. “But we had to leave too. So my father instructed 12 older boys to each carry a scroll to the cart. One Hungarian officer accused us of trying to make a scene. My father tried to reason. ‘Please sir, this is very important for us.’ When we arrived at the ghetto entrance they took my father to the SS police headquarters for three days. He never told me what happened there.”
She pauses in her narration. “I can only tell what I see myself. What happened to my father, I did not see. I can only give you testimony, not history. Because everybody has heard about such things – in books, films. But I prefer to speak only for myself.”
Her father was returned, but after just three weeks together in the ghetto, a long train used for livestock pulled up at the local station. “In every wagon they put 80 to 100 people. There were no places to sit. Two buckets - one with water to drink, the other for a toilet. No food. For three days.”
Leah pauses to take a sip of water.
“We did not know where we were going; we just knew we were heading north. They only opened the door once, for a half hour, to take out the bodies of those who died along the way. My two grandfathers died on another train.”
It was dark when they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Leah remembers clearly the lamps, the shadowy words "Arbeit Macht Frei" looming above the entrance, and the flurry of worn-down inmates in striped uniforms directing them into lines. Her mother took two small children by the hand, but a woman who had been there for some time warned her in Yiddish to stick with Leah rather than the orphans or else they would lose each other, but to also avoid letting on that Leah was her daughter, or they would be deliberately separated.
“At the head stood the SS guards, and in between was a very elegantly dressed officer. Later I knew him to be Dr. Josef Mengele.” Leah demonstrates how Auschwitz’s Angel of Death, as he came to be known, had been holding a little stick daintily between his fingers, indicting left and right with it: one way to the gas, the other way to stay alive. She and her mother entered the camp.
After being shaved from head to toe, the women were forced to undress and stand naked in a line, stripped of all dignity and humanity, clutching only their shoes and small bars of soap. “There were a lot of soldiers laughing at us, making jokes. From there we entered a great building with showers.” Once outside again they were left to rummage through a large pile of uniforms left behind by previous inmates.
Every day Dr. Mengele then came to their block C to make his "selections". Leah and her mother survived for longer when a Czech friend in charge of their block secured them jobs in the camp’s dreaded revier (clinic), where Mengele conducted his "experiments" on inmates. While her mother was turned into the number A25401 and worked as a nurse, Leah, touching her shoulder, explains she had worn a badge that read lieferant - literally meaning "office boy". Leah remained close to the other female revier workers, everyday eating from shared bowls in a line like animals.
“I was a delivery girl for Dr. Mengele,” she clarifies. “There were two of us.” She pulls up her left sleeve, revealing the number A25402 on her forearm. Three years ago, a woman from Kibbutz Neot Mordechai got in touch after reading an article about Leah launching a book of memoirs, compiled by her daughter Adina. “Her number was A25403."
The woman marked with the number A25404 was Dr. Gisella Perl, the Jewish gynecologist who saved the lives of hundreds of expectant mothers in the camp. While heavily pregnant women were sent straight to the gas chambers, those in the first few months of pregnancy were harder to spot.
“Dr. Mengele asked Dr. Perl for the women who were in the early stages,” Leah’s voice drops. “He wanted to do experiments with the babies. But Dr. Perl, at the risk of her life, took the pregnant women out in the middle of the night with my mother to perform abortions, so as not to put the mothers in the hands of Dr. Mengele, giving them a chance to survive.” Leah helped by holding up candles so Dr. Perl could operate in the darkness.
“I only remember one child being born there. Dr. Mengele cared for the mother until the end of the pregnancy, and a healthy baby was born. He gave it one month with the mother. He bought it clothes and nappies. Then he realized this was no place for a baby, saying it’s better to take it to the 'children’s hospital'.”
“Because I was the lieferant, he gave me the baby to take it to the gate. I heard him tell the mother that ‘the ambulance will come to take the baby’. When I got to the gate, the guard told me to throw the baby on the floor. I put the baby on the floor. When I came back the mother asked me frantically ‘what happened to my baby?’ And I told her the nurses came to take it. But I knew the baby was no longer alive.”
As a teenager Leah wrote in one of her letters while at the camp: “The devil, whom people called ‘the doctor’…A man of rare beauty, who with sadistic pleasure made decisions of life or death for the innocent. Usually the decision was death. To the ill patients, he said: ‘Why are you crying? You're all going to the healing home!’ Those patients knew they were going to the furnace while they were still living."
Leah had not been a delivery girl in any obstetric sense of the word. “When somebody died, it was our job to take the body to the gate. Not only the dead, also the dying.” Asked if Mengele ever spoke to her, Leah is matter of fact. “No, he did not speak with me. But we had no name, we were numbers.”
Toward the end of the war Leah recalls a blur of shoeless enforced marches and excruciating labor in the freezing Polish winter, which nearly killed her, as the Nazis tried to push them all over the brink. By this point Mengele had fled, and the gassing and furnaces had ceased to exist.
“My heart was very weak. I didn’t want to swallow anymore. No coffee, soup, bread. I was at my end. But then my mother spoke to me very angrily. I was ashamed, so I ate. She saved my life, again.”
By the time the Nazis tried to force them on a final march, Leah and several others were so ill that they were sent back to their block. “They wanted to make one last furnace. But then God sent us a snowstorm, so they couldn’t make the fire. And then they left.”
She arrived back home on the May 11, 1945. “My daughter Adina was born on the May 11 some years later,” Leah smiles. “I got off the train. It was Friday afternoon before Shabbat, I was with my mother. There was nobody at the train station. No family, no friends, only strangers. I was very sad. I thought I saw my father, but my father had died in a camp.”
As their taxi stopped at a red light a boy rushed up to them, snatched Leah into his arms and kissed her, exclaiming "Thank God you are alive, you came back! How are you?"
“I did not know him!” Leah leans forward like a child revealing a secret, “He said he was called Yossi, and that he was related to one of my classmates.” She flashes that mischievous grin. “He’s now my husband.”
Leah and Yossi migrated to Brazil where they lived happily for four decades. But Dr. Mengele apparently had the same idea. Leah heard the reports of the manhunt for Auschwitz’s most notorious doctor, as Mossad tracked him throughout South America. She feared bumping into him on the street or at the bank one day; fearing that he would come after her. “Dr. Mengele had a very good memory for faces, he remembered thousands of people.”
But he never came. He evaded capture for more than 30 years, and is ultimately believed to have died in South America.
Leah remained silent throughout, until just a few years ago. She genuinely thought nobody would be interested in her story. Her daughter explains that for the first few years Holocaust survivors, even in Israel, remained silent. Nobody wanted to talk about it, she says, to burden people, to upset people. It’s only really in the last two decades or so that survivors have started opening up.
But those years of silence have been left behind in a life now being lived through recollection and education. Profits from Leah's book go toward helping children with special needs, the antithesis of the crimes Mengele committed on such children. She also lectures in high schools and to young Israeli soldiers. And, with 22 grandchildren and 44 great grandchildren, Leah London Friedler is the living embodiment of the survival of the Jewish people.
Excerpts from Leah’s letters written at Auschwitz:
Auschwitz - February 22, 1945
Ten months passed, and this is my first letter to you. Perhaps I will never deliver this letter to you, but first I must know if, after these horrible 10 months, I should even direct this first letter to you at all.
Did you even know what it was like for me in these 10 months of imprisonment? Nazi imprisonment? It's not right for 17-year-old girls, because even among the strongest, healthiest men, only a few survived. But these devils, whom I was ready to choke with my own hands, each and every one of them, and never give them any mercy, they made up all of this for us. The bodily torments were horrible, yet the torments of the mind were so much more horrifying. When the intimidating SS man hit my arm with a baton until it was covered in black stripes, dripping blood, the pain was so bad, but my pain was so much sharper when they hit a pole across my mother's back. So much more shocking was to see the disgrace of the hunger than to experience the pain of hunger in tear-filled eyes.
You only think you know hunger, but you don't know it at all. Hungry were those who set with great passion upon a piece of bread left on a truck for moving dead bodies, just after it unloaded. A truck that only minutes before had lead our best friends to the gas chambers and the crematoria.
But I don’t want to talk about what I went through now, I am still too close to it. Now I am writing and writing because I’m struck with longing.
Maybe you know and understand what that means; I miss my city of birth, the city where I spent 17 beautiful years, the place that was my home, my school, my friends, and all the beauty of my youth and childhood years.
The place where I figured out my first book through slow reading.
The place where I was first joyful at the awakening of spring...
The place where bread baked by my mother was waiting for me...
The place where my father blessed me with his hands on my head.
I miss that place where I knew you, where I hoped you would return, and the place where maybe now you are the one hoping for my return...
For my old home I am longing, and from here I crave to get away....
Far, far away, as fast as possible, to never again see this cursed place, the entrance hall to hell.
From the end of August until mid-October 1944, I experienced the worst atrocities ever. I saw one by one my friends from home and from here, girlfriends from my class, their mothers or sisters, exterminated, ruined, or dragged to the gas and the furnace. Then I was working in the revier and in these two words, "revier work," contain all the horrible atrocities. Because you had to know there was nothing worse than this.
Auschwitz – February 27, 1945
My dear Mother!
I am pondering what sort of gift I would give you. I’m thinking hard but I can't think of any smart ideas, for the choices aren’t many. You know... I don't have anything...
Yet in any case, now I notice that there is one treasure that I will have, that in the most meticulous search while we were standing naked for washing, they did not take away from me. That is the single quality that never, no one and nothing would ever take away from me. Yet I have in my capacity to give it to whoever I want, if I feel the person is worthy of it. That is my heart and the innocent love that is in it. This I managed to maintain all along, and now I would like to hold your hand and pass to you my pure love, so that you feel, know what you mean to me.
Translations by Hadas Parush.
To order a copy of Leah’s book ‘Leman Yeduo Dor Acharon' please call Shalva - The Association for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Israel - at +972-2-6519555, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. All profits from Leah’s book go towards Shalva.
For further information please visit www.shalva.org.