The year was 1945, and Isabella Rubinstein was angry.
Irma Grese, a notorious female guard at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where Rubinstein was a prisoner for two years, was on trial, and the survivor wanted to see her former tormentor writhing in pain. So she penned a piece describing Grese’s iniquity in detail, and the punishment she thought she deserved, and sent it to The Palestine Post.
“We, your victims, do not want you to die,” read the letter addressed to Grese, which the newspaper ran in full on October 29, 1945. “We would much rather that you live, as we had to, with billows of filthy black smoke from the chimneys of the crematoria constantly before your eyes.
We want to see you dragging heavy stones, barefoot and in rags. We want to see you beaten, cruelly and mercilessly as you, cruel and without mercy, beat us.
“We want you to go so hungry that you cannot sleep at night, as we could not. We want to see your blonde hair shaved off, as you made us shave our heads.”
Last Monday, 66 years later, Batsheva Dagan – formerly Isabella Rubinstein – told The Jerusalem Post
– formerly The Palestine Post
– why she would not write the same letter today.
“Such a letter I would not be able to write and I’m amazed when I read it,” said the diminutive woman in an interview held in the flower-filled living room of her apartment in Holon. “Its main issue was revenge, revenge, revenge.”
In the decades since Dagan wrote her tirade, she has led a full and happy life. She married, raised a family, had a meaningful career as an educator and published prose and verse about her experiences during the Holocaust.
On Wednesday evening, the 87-year-old author will be among the six survivors honored by lighting a torch during the state ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Dagan is the first to admit she has been lucky.
“I even have a lucky number,” she said and rolled up her sleeve revealing the number 45554, which the Nazis tattooed on her left arm as a means of identification. “It’s a palindrome.”
Dagan was born in 1925 in Lodz, the eighth of nine children. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, her large family scattered. One brother went to Palestine, another joined the Polish Brigade, others sought refuge in the Soviet Union. Dagan moved with her parents and younger siblings to the relative safety of the central Polish city of Radom.
“My father heard they were setting up a ghetto in Lodz and he didn’t like the sound of it,” she said, “so we moved to Radom and were spared being put in one for a little over a year.”
But in 1940, a ghetto was set up in Radom and life suddenly became mean.
“You would not believe the deprivation, the lows that humans can sink to,” she said.
Dagan joined the ghetto’s resistance movement and on one occasion traveled under the guise of a gentile to Warsaw – where she personally delivered a dispatch to Mordechai Anielewicz, the heroic leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – and then back again. When, in 1942, the Radom ghetto was about to be liquidated, she escaped using fake documents. She took on the identity of a non-Jewish maid and went to work for a family in Germany.
“I worked for a fervently Nazi family where I took care of two teenagers,” she recalled. “Many years after the war I met them in Hamburg. The daughter was very cold to me, but the son was warm. They could not believe I survived.”
Her ruse did not last long. Her real identity was discovered by the Gestapo and she was sent to Auschwitz in April 1943. There, she survived the worst horrors imaginable. She was given tasks like collecting prickly nettles, which were used to make tea, barehanded, and removing precious items from the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers. She survived by relying on the camaraderie of a group of eight women and a strict regimen of self-discipline.
“The most important thing was the suspension of gratification,” she said. “Those who ate everything they had did not last but those who put a little on the side did better.”
When the Red Army approached Auschwitz in January 1945, Dagan was forced on a death march to Germany, where she worked at two labor camps. Liberation came only in April 1945.
After the war Dagan quickly made aliya thanks to her husband, a British army soldier she met in Brussels. She was one of the first survivors of the Holocaust to arrive in Palestine, where she caught word of the trial of Grese, her former captor at Auschwitz.
“I wanted to travel to Germany to testify but the British, who ruled at the time, would not give me a travel certificate,” she said. “So The Palestine Post
’s editor found me and asked me to write for them. It was a fire and brimstone piece. I could not write [something like that] today.
“Back then the urge for vengeance sought some release... nowadays I look for the human connection and I do not blame the younger generation for the sins of their parents or grandparents.”
The incendiary letter to the Post
was the first in her literary career. She later wrote, in a much more subdued tone, children’s books like Chika The Dog in the Ghetto
and Today the Siren Cried.
Dagan also wrote a collection of poems called Imagination: Blessed Be, Cursed Be
, which was translated into English.
“Before my time is up I would very much like to see a new edition of one of my books appear,” said the octogenarian, who is in good health. She said she “loves life” and is willing to “subscribe forever.”
Despite the ordeals she lived through – the murder of her parents and siblings, the torture by the Nazis in the ghetto and the death camps, all of which she says is painful to speak of to this day – she remains an optimist.
Rubinstein, who sought aneye- for-an-eye punishment for Grese, has been mollified by Dagan, whose message of optimism permeates her writing.
“The Holocaust is not only horrors,” said Dagan. “When I wrote for children about the Holocaust I had to give them a happy ending, and so I did. My stories always have a happy end.”