real life

'I did not ask for survival. I asked God to let me keep my humanity.'

As a young girl in Slovakia in the late 1930s, Eva Slonim enjoyed the love of her close family and the support of a warm community around her. But her innocence was shattered by Nazi Germany’s invasion of her homeland in March 1939. As the persecution of Europe’s Jews gathered momentum, Eva’s parents were forced to send their 10 children into hiding, but she and her sister Marta could not avoid capture.  This chilling extract from her remarkable memoir Gazing with the Stars describes in vivid detail the day in November 1944 she arrived at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

The doors were flung open. The snow was blinding. German soldiers boarded the train, shouting orders: ‘Women with infants, children under sixteen and old people to the right; young men and women without children to the left.’ We obeyed.

Marta and I walked towards the right. A young man started tugging at my arm. ‘This is selection,’ he said. ‘You look old enough – come with us!’ I looked at Marta, confused. ‘Go with them,’ she said. ‘Go with the living. I am not scared to die alone. Just remember this date, and tell Papa to say kaddish for me.’ I felt the young man tug again at my arm. I succumbed and inched to the left, towards the living. But then I felt another tug coming from the opposite direction, this time on my skirt. I looked down and saw Marta gripping to my garment.

‘Eva, I’m too scared to die on my own.’

Just a few days earlier, even letting Marta out of my sight had been unthinkable to me. And now I was willing to leave her amid the chimneys and smoke? I felt very guilty. I pulled my arm away from the young man and took Marta’s instead. ‘We will never be separated again,’ I told her. ‘I promise.’

Dogs barked and SS men shouted, ‘Raus, raus!’ Marta and I were pushed to the right, and our crowd was ordered to form lines of five. We started marching. I will never forget that first march through Birkenau. I saw prisoners standing behind electric wire, their heads shaven, with filthy rags hanging off their bones. I will never forget their eyes, overgrown in their emaciated heads – they were madlooking, desperate, two great voids scanning the newly arrived for relatives. I wanted to survive, yes. I was desperate to remain with the living. But to live like this? To become like them? To me, they did not look human. During that march, I prayed to God. I did not ask for survival. No. My prayer was: Please, God, let me keep my humanity. Do not turn me into one of them.

Eva Slonim. Image: supplied.

As we marched through the camp, we had no idea if we were going to live or die. Whispers went through the lines that we were to be spared. We marched slowly on, to an unknown destination. We crossed a small bridge with no balustrades, flanked by men with guns. Open sewage flowed beneath us. One of the SS men kicked Marta off the bridge. She screamed and thrashed frantically in the stream of excrement. She would have drowned if not for a brave young man who jumped in after her and pulled her out. The soldiers whooped and laughed.


Eventually, we stopped outside a large barracks. We were ordered to enter. It was long, narrow and dark, with wooden slats for beds. In the middle of the barracks was a stout man standing on a chair. He was the Blockälteste of the Familienlager. ‘Every beginning has its end,’ he shouted. ‘One word, one step out of line, and you are dead.’ He then ordered us back outside.

I will never forget that first day. There are moments that, perhaps, I wish I could forget.

Back outside in the yard, I saw that a gallows had been erected. We were lined up in front of it. Two SS men led a young girl to the gallows. She looked no older than me. They placed a noose around her neck and I began to sob uncontrollably. ‘Don’t cry,’ a kapo standing next to me whispered. ‘She is lucky. She will not feel a thing. Her friends managed to find sedatives to drug her beforehand. Her suffering is over.’

I remember seeing the girl hanging from the gallows. Her suffering was not over, I knew. It lives on, and it repeats endlessly in my memory. Night fell, and we were ordered back into our barracks. Marta was still wet from the sewage, and there was no water with which to wash. She was hysterical and cold. Our first meal arrived. It was a cup of weak coffee. Everyone in the barracks donated their ration to wash Marta. Then some of the men sat around a makeshift table and talked seriously, trying to come to terms with what was happening. They made a makeshift ouija board and tried to speak to the dead. We were all scared.


One morning we were woken up earlier than usual, when it was still dark. It was around four am. We were ordered into the yard to be counted; this was called tzel apel. We were given a cup of weak coffee and a slice of bread for breakfast. Then we were marched to a different barracks for tattooing. We did not know what this meant, and we were afraid that it was preparation for the gas chambers.

When it was my turn, I held out my left arm, trembling. The man giving the tattoos was a Jewish inmate. He held my burnt arm gently. ‘Those who are tattooed have been chosen to live,’ he said softly. I was momentarily reassured by this kind man. But then suddenly I realised that I was no longer the girl I had been just a day before. I was no longer Eva Weiss, thirteen years of age. I was not even Anca Wohlschlager, sixteen years of age. I was A27201.

Once we had all been tattooed, we were commanded to line up in fives and march, so we did. We marched past a huge concrete pit. Behind it, at some distance down the path, there were birch trees swaying in the wind. After the war, I learnt that this pit was my sister Judith’s grave. Judith had tried to escape the night her adopted family was arrested in Hungary. She jumped out of the window in her room and into the neighbours’ yard. She had put sugar cubes in her pocket to appease their dogs. Unfortunately, the dogs barked and she was caught.

On arriving at Auschwitz, she was put in a tipping truck with hundreds of other little children, and thrown alive into this concrete pit, at the bottom of which was a fire. I walked past her grave without a second glance. If I had known then that this was her final resting place, I would have whispered kaddish for her, my little sister. But beyond the concrete pit the birch trees swayed, as if performing an eternal kaddish for Judith and the rest of those children.


We marched on, towards what we were told was the ‘sauna’. It was no sauna. It was a large concrete chamber where, at gunpoint, we had to strip. From the corner of my eye I saw my old teacher, Laura-neni, whom I revered and respected, now naked and quivering under the barrel of a gun.

Then we were pushed into another room, naked and cold. There, they shaved off all of our hair. We were completely robbed of our dignity. We were given a towel and a piece of soap. They told us that the soap was made from human fat. We were pushed into a small concrete chamber which had showerheads hanging from the roof. Some of the older prisoners started shouting, ‘We will be gassed!’ and were forced in.

The door was bolted shut. The room filled with screams and moans. Cold water drenched us from above. When the water was shut off, the back door of the chamber opened. We were pushed out and, still naked, were ordered to bow our heads. As we shivered in the cold, our newly shaven heads were doused with petrol. It was called disinfection. The guards threw us some clothes. Mine were disgusting. The shirt was missing a sleeve and the underpants had been soiled. Somehow, in the rush, Marta stole an extra set of clean garments, which she put one on top of the other, saving one for me.

At the end of that day I no longer felt like I knew who I was.

This is an edited extract from Gazing at the Stars: Memories of a Child Survivor by Eva Slonim, Black Inc.
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