Real courage

Mothers of Auschwitz

Why we need to be reminded about Auschwitz


Good morning, my pretty lady, are you pregnant?

The questioner in the sunshine was a smiling doctor, a charmer in his early forties, impeccably dressed, his manicured hands flipping soft leather gloves. Rachel focused on his glistening boots — jackboots. She had to concentrate on them and what they symbolized to suppress her natural pride in the prospect of motherhood. She had to understand the incomprehensible: that a positive ‘Yes’ would be the end of life for her and for her unborn baby.

She looked the doctor straight in the face and lied: “Nein.”

The doctor was the infamous Josef Mengele (1911-1979), the Nazi SS officer and physician. The place was the parade ground at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The time, 1944. Rachel was one of the multitudes of naked women prisoners, shaved of body hair, robbed of all possessions, who shivered in long lines waiting for the “Selektion” by Mengele, the Angel of Death: Those he judged too frail for slave labor were marked for extermination. Any pregnant woman was doomed. Why tolerate the addition of another Jew when you had six million to kill? Further along the line from Rachel, Mengele and guards squeezed the breasts of women: a tell-tale drop of milk, signifying a pregnancy of four weeks or more was enough to end two lives. Milk, the symbol of purity and goodness!

Do we need to be reminded of Auschwitz? Yes, we do. At a time when hatred of Jews is being fomented yet again in Europe, to say nothing of the Middle East with the Muslim Brotherhood, who backed the Nazis, we must insistently remember how poisons took possessions of men’s souls. But Wendy Holden’s book, Born Survivors, is exceptionally fresh history, a work of prodigious original research, written with zealous empathy: the story of Rachel Abramczyk, and two other newly pregnant young concentration camp prisoners under 30, Anka Nathanová and Priska Loewenbeinová, who also concealed the hope in their wombs.

How did they survive the daily and mind-numbing scrutiny? They could trust no one, most vulnerable to any lapse of their own discipline. In April, 1945, a Czech prisoner in the cold-water absolution spotted Priska’s distended belly. “You’ll get us all killed!” she screamed, and the guards came running …

Another Czech, Ruth Huppert, the author tells us, managed to hide her own pregnant condition and opted, in prudence, to be sent away from Auschwitz to slave labor. She worked in an oil refinery but her pregnancy could not be hidden near full term. She was sent back to Auschwitz. She gave birth. Dr. Mengele, furious at her successful concealment, had her breasts tightly bandaged to stop her feeding her baby; an experiment, he said, to see how long a baby could survive without food. When the baby was half dead, the mother was given a phial of morphine to end the newborn’s suffering, then she herself was sent back to slave labor.

None of the three young women in Born Survivors knew at the time their secret predicament was shared by the others. We follow their three stories with fear and excitement as they near term and the allied armies come closer – but not soon enough, close enough, to spare them the ordeals of being bundled into cattle trucks for a hellish journey into the unknown. They end up in the death camp at Mauthausen. “The first Priska knew about the arrival of Americans in Mauthausen,” the author writes, “was the sound of something she hadn’t heard in years – laughter, a most beautiful thing.”

And more joy awaits the reader in a moving climax at Mauthausen, in a celebration 65 years after the arrival of the young Americans of the 11th Armored Division. There, for the first time, Priska’s daughter Hana (given birth to on a bare plank) meets the other death camp babies, Mark Abramczyk and Eva, and there was laughter again.

A 70th reunion is planned for May of this year.

“Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance and Hope” will be released on May 5th. Pre-order a copy of the book here.


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