Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah) is on May 4-5 in Israel commemorating the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto (while International Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz). At AACI Netanya Livia Bitton-Jackson, 82 years old, former lecturer in Judaic Studies and History at CUNY, spoke about her miraculous survival during the Holocaust.
She and her family lived in a village outside Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, but the region where they lived was predominantly Hungarian. In a way this saved her life, because the Slovakian Jews were transported to their deaths in 1942, while the Hungarian Jews, including her region,were not transported until 1944. The reason for this was apparently that the Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy did not approve of the transport of the Hungarian Jews, but in 1944 Hitler had him replaced by an ardent Nazi sympathizer, Ferenc Szalasi.
One noteworthy thing about Livia is that she had long straight blond hair and at the age of 13 in 1944 she wore her hair in braids, very unusual for a Jewish girl. She also had bright blue eyes and was taller than her contemporaries. Her mother always bemoaned the fact that she was not a brunette like all the other Jewish girls.
When the time came for her and her family to be transported (her father had already been taken away) they were all gathered in the synagogue of a nearby town, ca. 4,000 people squeezed into a small building for a week. It was so bad that they were actually glad when the order came for them to leave and board the train. About 150 people were forced into each “cattle car” (actually they were not cattle cars because they had no holes for the cattle to breath). They traveled east for four days until they stopped early in the morning in Auschwitz. They were forced out of the cars and had to leave all their belongings behind. Then they were marched for 1.5 km with SS guards using whips into the camp. They did not know where they were going. Then they came to the selection point, where women and children and old people were sent to the right and people between the age of 16 and 45 were sent to the left. Livia followed her mother to the right.
At the selection there was an SS officer who she later learned was Josef Mengele with two other SS officers. Suddenly he walked over to the column that Livia was in and pulled her out by her braid. He asked her (in German of course) “Are you a Jew?” to which she replied in German “Yes, I am a Jew.” Then he asked her how old she was and she said “13.” He showed her the column on the other side and he said “go and join that column and if anyone asks tell them you are 16.” As she was about to go her mother called out to her and Mengele saw her mother, who also had bright blue eyes, and he asked her “is that your mother?” and when she replied “yes,” he motioned for her to join Livia. But, her aunt also called out to join them, but Mengele said “no” and when she tried to do so a soldier hit her over the head and she fell in a pool of blood. Her brother who was 17 had already gone in that column and all three of them survived Auschwitz.
Livia attributes her survival and that of her mother to God’s intervention, but if that is the case then God was working through the evil Dr. Mengele. As a matter of fact, amazingly we met another blonde Hungarian Jewish woman in Netanya, who was a member of our Hebrew ulpan, who was also saved by Dr. Mengele in a similar way. Livia’s story is told in her memoir “I Have Lived a Thousand Years: growing up in the Holocaust,” available on Amazon.com and in an article in The Jerusalem Post “Saved by a braid in Auschwitz” by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt (http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Saved-by-a-braid-in-Auschwitz-453001).
Livia talked about a group of younger Germans from Tubingen, who had persisted in asking their fathers and grandfathers about their experiences of the Holocaust. Eventually they collected a group of ca. 100 confessions that they published as a book entitled “Breaking the vow of silence,” author Jobs Bittner. For example, one of them confessed to having shot dead ca. 300 Hungarian Jewish women who were paraded through a town in Germany. They formed an organization and bought a villa in Caesarea in Israel and visit Israel and do charitable works. They also march through other countries carrying Israeli flags to tell their stories. They invited Livia to speak at their house here. So in a strange way the Shoah is still alive, even though Livia described herself as an endangered species..