From Auschwitz to Ramat Gan

Judith Jaegermann's mission is to tell the story no one wanted to hear.

survivor (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Judith Jaegermann has been lecturing on the Holocaust to audiences at high schools, Yad Vashem, army bases and even prisons for 22 years. These talks have become her life's mission and have probably helped prolong her life after decades in which she was forced to live in silence and contend with the indifference of those who did not experience the war in Europe and did not want to hear of it. Today, Jaegermann lives in a lovely home on a side street in Ramat Gan walled in by the Diamond Center and the more recently built multistory structures of the hi-tech age. Her home, furnished in the central European style, is the antithesis of the surroundings with which she was forced to contend for six years, starting at the age of nine. Like almost all of the stories of those who survived the inferno, it is an incredible one. Jaegermann was born on December 29, 1929. She was nine in 1938, when the Germans marched into Carlsbad, the spa town in Czechoslovakia where she was born. Along with her parents and two sisters, Esther and Ruth, she moved to Prague, which was still the capital of the rump Czech state. The Jewish community found an apartment for the family, which they had to share with three other families. In March 1939, six months before the outbreak of World War II, Germany occupied Prague and turned the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia into a protectorate. Only Esther, the oldest of the sisters, was able to escape to Palestine. Judith remembers the Nazi tanks entering the city and German soldiers singing "Our knives will spill Jewish blood and the world will be a better place." "I was terrified by this," she recalled Wednesday. "I didn't know what would happen to us. I felt unsafe and also that there was no one to help. Even my parents couldn't help." Almost from the beginning of the occupation, the Jews of Prague were forced to wear yellow Stars of David with the word "Jude" printed on them. In September 1942, the Nazis ordered Jaegermann's family to show up at the Exhibition Halls in Prague. They were forced there to stand at daily roll call for four hours in the heat. One day, Judith fainted and was awakened by a soldier, who poked his rifle into her stomach and warned her, "There is no pampering here. Learn to stand like everyone else or you will be killed." The experience traumatized her. "From that time on, during the entire length of our imprisonment, I remained deeply sad and spoke very little." The Jaegermann family lived at Theresienstadt for 16 months and was there when the concentration camp was briefly turned into a "model" community for the benefit of the International Red Cross. But what Judith remembers most clearly was being separated from her mother for the first time and wandering tearfully through the camp until she found her and was able to move into her shed. In December 1943, the family was put on a transport to Auschwitz. The Nazis piled 100 Jews into each boxcar and placed a pail in the middle for a toilet. As they approached Auschwitz, Jaegermann's father stuck his head out and asked a Polish railway employee if the transports would continue on from Auschwitz. The Pole replied that the transports went up the chimney, which burned 24 hours a day. Her father was so frightened that he immediately got stomach cramps and diarrhea. "I had to watch how my big, strong Papa, who was for me the most courageous and strongest man in the world, had to shamefully drop his trousers and sit down on the bucket in front of all these people." After the doors were opened, the Jews were forced out of the boxcars. Men and women were separated. The women were ordered to take off their clothes, shaved everywhere and then forced to remain standing naked for hours. They were then clothed in rags belonging to women who had already been murdered. Finally, "a large, cruel woman" tattooed the infamous concentration camp numbers on their arms. Jaegermann displays hers, with the number 71502 still clearly marked. "It was very painful," she recalled. "It was done with needles deep into the flesh and when I tried to take my hand away, I was given a hard slap in the face. When I cried out, the woman said, 'You had better get used to this. Here, you will be hurt much more.'" From there, Jaegermann, her mother and sister were marched the four kilometers to Birkenau, where they remained for almost eight months. They did nothing during this time except stand in interminable roll calls in freezing cold. Women who collapsed were taken away and shot. On July 5, 1944, the Jaegermanns went through Josef Mengele's selection process. On that same day, which was her mother's birthday, she saw her father for the last time. While walking toward the platform where Mengele stood, Judith saw women cradling their arms as if they were holding babies. Someone explained to her that these women had lost their minds after the Nazis killed their children at the beginning of the selection process. "The SS took every baby," she said. "One soldier would throw the baby up in the air while another one shot it. The women motioned to us, as if asking us to give them their babies back. That picture has stayed with me throughout my life." Mengele waved Judith Jaegermann and her sister and mother to the same side. Until the very end of this process, they did not know which side meant life and which meant death, but they were relieved to know they were still together. Mengele chose them for a work battalion destined for Hamburg to clean up after Allied bombing of the key industrial city. They lived there for nine months with barely any food, working eight hours a day in the freezing cold. One day, Judith almost froze to death. On another, someone poured a bucket fill with burning wood and paper on her head, almost burning her to death. By now, however, the war was coming to an end. Bergen-Belsen had been evacuated by the Germans and was manned by trigger-happy Hungarian or Ukrainian soldiers who shot the starving inmates for fun. When the camp was finally liberated by British troops, a typhoid epidemic broke out, killing many of those who were left. Judith became ill with typhoid but somehow recovered. She, her sister and mother weighed about 25 kilograms each when they were freed. After the liberation of the camp, the Jaegermanns returned to Prague. Judith, by now almost 16, was enrolled in a Youth Aliya program and, for the first time, separated from her mother and sister and immigrated to pre-state Israel. But freedom did not put an end to her suffering. "My sister, Esther, took me into her home," she said. "I thought I would be able to put my head on her shoulder and she would ask me what I had gone through in Europe. But that never happened. She did not ask me. No one asked me. "[David] Ben-Gurion said Israelis must be strong and have muscles. They shut us up. I was terribly unhappy. No one wanted to hear. No one wanted to talk to me. I was in deep depression." Judith never forgave Esther for her lack of interest and the two barely spoke to each other in the years before the older sister died. Jaegermann married at the age of 17, in part to get out of her sister's house. But she said her husband, who had been born in Germany but immigrated before the war, also refused to hear her stories. There was a brief interlude during the Eichmann trial in which Israelis took an interest in the Holocaust. But, according to Jaegermann, it did not last long. Then, in 1985, she saw an ad in the newspaper for a Yad Vashem course on how to stand before an audience and speak about the Holocaust. She signed up and has been talking to the public ever since. She has also distributed 60,000 copies of a brief biography in Hebrew of her experiences in the Holocaust, and has printed a 60-page volume in English as well. "I feel better because I do this," she said toward the end of a long interview. "It is my duty to do this. Our duty. We must never forget what they did to the Jewish people."