Life in the Ghetto and Journey to Auschwitz- Excerpt from the Story of Leah Klein
“The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1944.
The first thing they did was to take away the Jewish work permits. People that worked in the city hall, the post office and more, were replaced by Hungarian workers. Then they took away our business licenses. My father had a delivery business; he had four wagons with rubber wheels like trucks. He picked up goods from the train station and delivered them to the local businesses. Most of those businesses were shut down when the Nazis arrived.
Then they took the Jewish students out of the schools. They took all of the children, from first through fifth grades, and stuck us all in one room. They sent two adults to sit with us, to “babysit” us. We weren’t taught by them. The older children, including myself, were responsible for teaching the younger children. We lived that way for a year or two.
Next, we were forced to wear yellow stars on our clothes. Every Jew who left their house was forced to wear one. If you were recognized as a Jew, out in the street without a star, you were punished. Our lives had changed so drastically and we were miserable.
We didn’t know that more misery was on the way for us.
At the end of Pesach in 1944. The Nazis grew tired of policing us. The SS officers banged on our door. They asked us, “Are you packed?” Packed for what? We had no idea where we were going. They knew how many children there were supposed to be in our home. We packed as much as we could, and we were told to meet at the train station. We packed our clothes, pillows, blankets. I had with me a fur coat, a siddur, a change of clothes, and a nightgown.
They loaded all the Jews into cattle cars. We traveled twenty-four kilometers till we reached Uzhhorod, a nearby city. They brought us to a brick factory, that they had turned into a makeshift ghetto.
The Nazis told us that we would stay there until they were ready to send us somewhere else. We didn’t know what to feel. We all were living outside and used what we had to make shelters. We were all being housed in the same location. They gave us a roof and we took blankets and sheets to section off private spaces for each family. There were eighty families staying together. But then they began bringing in families from other locations around Europe, like Poland.
I was one of the “older” girls who were responsible for all the children of the ghetto. We needed to keep them occupied and clean. The children were infested with lice. There was no water for showers. They were scared. They were hungry. So it was our job to keep them clean. Remove the lice from their hair. I took petroleum and rubbed it through their heads and picked out the lice. Then I would give them makeshift showers. We taught them what we could, but mainly it was to distract them.
We ate soup that we were given every day. We got extra food when people went to leave the ghetto to work on work permits. Sometimes the townspeople would toss food into the ghetto; salamis and loaves of bread.
We were there for six weeks. When the Nazis told us they were ready to move us, my father said that it was OK. We needed to go. It was not sustainable to live there like that. It was a horrible life, and we couldn’t go on much longer. We didn’t know what would be waiting for us on the other side of the train. But we knew that we couldn’t stay in the ghetto any longer.
We were uprooted again on June 6, 1944.
They loaded us back onto the cattle cars. They had to push us in, but we thought that anything could be better than the ghetto. We were stuck in these tiny cars for two and a half days. There was no food or water. It was torture. It was hell. Several people tried to jump out of the cars and landed on the tracks. I don’t know if they all survived the fall.
There was a man in the corner of the car who stopped moving. We thought he was sleeping. When we went to inspect, my mother pushed us away from him. She didn’t want us to see a dead man.
We were packed in the car so tightly, that we had to take turns sitting down. There was a little window high up in the car, and we tried to look out the window to see where we were going. We tried to shout for help. When we got to stations we cried and begged for assistance or water. None of the people at the stations would approach the cars to help us. They were terrified of the soldiers.
We had no idea where we were, but everyone was told to get out of the cars. It was night and the whole place was lit up with bright lights. There were massive gates hovering over us. There were wires everywhere; electrical wires that would electrocute you if you touched them. Some people touched them because they didn’t know. Some people touched them because they wanted to. We didn’t yet know the fresh hell that was Auschwitz.
We were told to put our bags on the side. Then we were lined up in front of a man, who seemed to be sorting the families into different sides. This man was Dr. Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” who experimented on and tortured Jews. He was the man who decided if you lived or died in Auschwitz. We all stood in line and as we got closer to him, we tried to understand how and why he was separating us.
The men and women were separated. They took my mother and my younger siblings to one side. My father said to me, “Go with your mother. She might need help with the younger children.” I was sixteen at the time.
An SS officer grabbed me by the neck when he saw me going with the mothers and the children. I told them I was sixteen. He told me that I was old enough to work. They sent me back to the other line where my sister Joli was waiting for me.
Mengele had his hand in his sweater. He was directing which line people should stand in with his thumb; pointing it in this direction and that direction based on his assessment of how useful they would be to him. My mother and my younger siblings were sent to their death. We didn’t learn what happened to them until after the war. They were stripped down and they were brought to take showers. Instead of water streaming from the showerheads, pellets of gas were dropped inside. They were gassed to death and their bodies were cremated. When I think about their deaths, it is very hard.
So very hard.
My grandparents, Bubie and Zaydie, had been in the ghetto with us. But when we were all loaded into the cattle cars, the elderly were taken to a separate car.
We didn’t see them on the journey.
We never saw them again.
That was the beginning.”
Today on Yom Hashoah, we are sharing an excerpt from the profile of Leah Klein featured in our new book, “Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth from Jewish Women”
Leah passed away just a few months ago in January 2021. She gave us the tremendous gift of her story, just a year before her passing. It was an honor to know her and learn from her.
Please say a prayer for the aliya of the neshama of Rachel Leah Bat Avraham z”l.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.