Be a 'human being': Holocaust survivor educates community about hope, sacrifice
April 24, 2013
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- At age 20, Esther Bauer became an orphan and a widow at the hands of Nazis.
Bauer, a Holocaust survivor who stared death, sorrow and starvation in the face, can still find it in herself to promote hope and speak out against hate.
She shared her story with Soldiers, civilians and Family Members during the annual Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance April 17 at the Commons. This year's event, titled "Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs," allowed the community to remember, honor and recognize the sacrifices of not only the 6 million Jewish people killed during the Holocaust, but the American troops who liberated the concentration camps and defeated the Nazi regime.
Before Bauer began her remarks, Anita Seefried-Brown, immediate past president of Congregation Degel Israel Synagogue in Watertown, recited El Malei Rachamim, a memorial prayer. Seefried-Brown and Bauer held a brief menorah-lighting ceremony honoring the many lives lost and remembering those who stood against the Nazis.
Bauer was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1924 to Dr. Alberto and Dr. Marie Anna Jonas. Her father was the principal and history professor at an all-girls Jewish school in Hamburg, and her mother was a medical doctor and teacher at the school.
In 1933, when she was just 9 years old, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Bauer said little by little, things began changing in her hometown.
At the time, Hamburg was home to some 20,000 Jewish people. Many of them began fleeing the country as the Jewish community's quality of life diminished -- they were no longer allowed to attend public schools, go to movie theaters or concerts, or even play at the nearby playground.
"Things got progressively worse," Bauer said. "My classmates started to emigrate, but my father (believed that) because he had done nothing wrong, nothing would happen to him. Of course, he was completely wrong."
When Bauer was 15, she was taken out of school and was forced to perform heavy labor in a factory. For the next few years, things got much worse for Bauer's family -- her father's school closed, her mother and all doctors were unable to practice medicine, and the family was evicted from their home. The Jonases was forced to move into a small apartment with no heat or hot water.
In 1942, Bauer's family -- along with around 700 Jewish residents of Hamburg -- was forced to pack one suitcase each and meet at the train station. They were transported to the Theresienstadt ghetto -- a prison camp -- in Czechoslovakia.
"(When we arrived), we set our suitcases down on the floor, and needless to say, we never saw our suitcases again," she said.
The living conditions at their new home were "awful" -- cold stone floors, filthy rooms and latrines, Bauer said.
Bauer's mother was made the physician there, but she was given no medicine or supplies to treat people.
The Nazi officers assured Bauer's father that he could reopen a school. But in the meantime, he was forced to perform hard labor, to which he wasn't accustomed. Only six weeks after arriving at the camp, her father died of meningitis.
"I always said, he died more of a broken heart than of sickness because they had lied to him so much," she explained.
During her time in Theresienstadt, she met a young Czechoslovakian man named Honza Leiner.
"He didn't speak a word of German, and I didn't speak a word of Czech," she said. "We had someone interpret for us, and I made up my mind that I would learn to speak the language."
Two years later, Leiner received notice that he would be transferred to Dresden, Germany, to build a ghetto there. Bauer and her boyfriend were married three days before he departed for Germany.
Later, Bauer had the opportunity to join her husband. However, once she was on the train, she realized they were headed to Poland, not to Dresden.
The train was en route to Auschwitz, one of the most notorious concentration camps during the Holocaust. As the women arrived, Dr. Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death," stood by with his dog, separating them into two groups. Some went to the left and the others to the right. While at Auschwitz, Mengele performed cruel medical experiments, mutilations and surgeries on Jewish prisoners -- without anesthesia.
Prisoners came out of the barracks and begged the new arrivals for their bread. The women complied, and the lady next to Bauer was shot dead.
"It could have easily been me," she said.
Bauer's group was taken to the shower building, where their heads were shaved. When the women were led to the shower room, they were sure it was the gas chamber.
"They took everything away from us," she said. "We figured it was the end, but then the water came."
Bauer endured harsh weather and freezing temperatures at Auschwitz.
"To sit and do nothing but (anticipate) that they were going to kill us is terrible," she said. "At night, they took people out of the barracks and drove them to the gas chamber. They were screaming, knowing where they were going; we tried not to listen."
After two weeks, Bauer was taken to the showers again. She was given new clothes, and she boarded a train bound for a labor camp in Freiberg, Germany.
"I will never forget the smell of Auschwitz -- the burning flesh," she said. "Those were the worst two weeks of my life.
"In Auschwitz, there were Nazis who killed Jews during the day and (went) home and played with their children like nothing had happened," Bauer continued. "I couldn't understand the psyche of those terrible people."
She was given a job at an old china factory that had been converted to build airplane parts. The living conditions were only slightly better, with the rooms being infested with bedbugs, fleas and lice, but at least there was heat, Bauer said.
She befriended a Czech woman named Charlotte, with whom she shared a bed, and started her job making rivets for German planes.
"The only act of sabotage I was able to (carry out) was to make the rivets either too short or too long," she said. "They couldn't catch me, because the piece was closed, and when the Nazis looked, they only could see the outside.
"I said, 'no plane I built will ever fly,'" Bauer added with a laugh.
On her 21st birthday, Charlotte gave Bauer "the most valuable gift" ever -- her weekly ration of one pat of margarine.
"I didn't know if I should put it on my face or eat it," Bauer said. "I don't remember what I did, but we didn't have any cream for our face. We had nothing.
"After nine months, my hair had grown back, and I made myself a comb. I still have this comb in my safe in New York," she added.
As the war went on, the factory began running out of raw materials. The workers had to pretend to work using scrap metal when the Nazis would come and observe the factory.
"It looked like we were working, but we didn't accomplish anything," Bauer said.
Change is coming
One morning in April 1945, some 1,000 of the women who worked at the factory were told they would be leaving. Bauer believed they were going back to Auschwitz; however, she didn't know that the death camp had been liberated by American troops three months earlier.
"We were sitting in the train and my friend Charlotte … said to me, 'I'm going to flee, come with me,'" Bauer said. "I wouldn't do it. The Czechs would know I'm German, and the Germans would know I was Jewish.
"She jumped out of the train at night and I heard shooting," she added. "I was sure she was dead."
The group arrived at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
"It was horrible. The Nazis killed thousands and thousands of people there -- not just Jews," Bauer explained. "I had to share a bed with another lady, and she died during the night. All the vermin goes from the dead body to a live body, which was me. It was just terrible."
Bauer hadn't eaten in almost two weeks. Luckily, the man who worked in the kitchen was a friend of her husband, and he gave her two portions of food.
"I was so hungry, I ate it all and got very sick," she said. "One morning, I heard that the Nazis were gone. They were all gone."
Bauer looked outside and saw a tank approach waving a white flag -- the Americans had come.
"That was the happiest day of my life," Bauer said. "The Americans nursed me back to health.
"The first American Soldier I spoke to talked to me in the most beautiful Hamburg German. He was a refugee who had fled to America and joined the Army," she explained. "He found the address to one of the (Nazi) women, took a suitcase and filled it with clothes and brought it to me. I will never forget -- I got a beautiful green wool suit with a black fur collar. I was very happy."
Bauer and her friends used drapes to make dresses by hand. Later, she assisted U.S. troops as an interpreter.
After a few weeks, the Russians took over the camp. Bauer and a friend relocated to Linz, the nearest U.S.-occupied town. After hearing that Russian soldiers were abusing the Jewish women who stayed at Mauthausen, Bauer was determined to go back for her friend who stayed behind.
"I flirted with a G.I. who had a Jeep. Americans are so easy-going," she said with a chuckle.
Bauer and the Soldier smuggled her friend out of the camp and took her back to Linz.
Bauer eventually went back to Hamburg, where she learned that her husband never made it to Dresden. He and her mother were both sent to Auschwitz and were murdered.
In 1946, Bauer moved to New York City and stayed with a friend in Washington Heights. On her first night in New York, she and her friend went out for ice cream.
"At that time, there were ice cream parlors on every corner on Broadway," she said. "In walked two young men -- one was her boyfriend and one was his buddy from the Army. The friend, (Werner Bauer), asked 'are you the girl who just came from Germany?' I said 'yes,' and he said 'I pictured you quite differently -- and you speak English!'
"I married him two years later," Bauer said, smiling.
They were married 46 years and had one son and two grandchildren before he died in 1994. Bauer worked in international advertising in New York before retiring in Yonkers.
In 1968, to Bauer's surprise, she received a letter from Charlotte. She had survived the jump, evaded the Nazis' bullets and found her way back home. Charlotte played bridge with a teacher at Alfredo Jonas' Jewish school in Hamburg who helped her locate Bauer. The two friends were reunited in Haifa, Israel, in 1970.
"Ten years ago, I met my boy toy, Bill," she said of her boyfriend, Bill Engel, who was in attendance.
Engel recently was knighted by the French government for his service to the country during World War II. He and his family fled Nazi-controlled Germany and settled in the U.S. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943, where he served in Italy and France.
Bauer and Engel attend speaking engagements at universities and community events to educate people about the Holocaust, but also to promote hope.
"I was always lucky. I can only tell you what happened to me personally," Bauer explained. "There are thousands of other stories. I was always lucky, even though I wound up in Auschwitz.
"There were good Germans; they were not all bad," she added. "(After being liberated, I pledged to) live each day, have fun and be a human being."