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Hilda Lebedun

Hilda Lebedun
Nationality: Slovakian
Location: Auschwitz Concentration Camp • Auschwitz II - Birkenau Concentration Camp • Czechoslovakia • Germany • Poland • Telefunken Labor Camp • Zilina Labor Camp
Experience During Holocaust: Escaped the Holocaust • Family Died During the Holocaust • Family Died in Concentration Camp • Family Survived • Forced on a Death March • Had Contact with Dr. Josef Mengele • Liberated • Lived in a Displaced Persons camp • Lived in Multiple Concentration Camps • Sent to Concentration Camp • Suffered from Disease • Worked in Factory

Mapping Hilda's Life

Click on the location markers to learn more about Hilda. Use the timeline below the map or the left and right keys on your keyboard to explore chronologically. In some cases the dates below were estimated based on the oral histories.

“In that snow, we were naked and shivering, and there we were standing, those of us who were living, and others were already in trucks and crying and screaming and some of the men recognized their mothers, their wives, their daughters, screaming and crying... And he stands there and says to the commandant, Mengele says, 'Isn’t that beautiful? Where is their God, damned Jewish God while we are killing them like this? Where is that verflucht Juden God? Where is that verflucht Juden God now?'” - Hilda Lebedun

Read Hilda's Oral History Transcripts

Read the transcripts by clicking the red plus signs below.

Tape 1 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: This is Terry Bernstein interviewing Hilda Lebedun. Let’s start with your Jewish name and place of birth.
LEBEDUN: My Jewish name is Hannah and I was born January 4, 1922 in Czechoslovakia.
BERNSTEIN: Where in Czechoslovakia?
LEBEDUN: In the Slovakian part, Vrutky.
BERNSTEIN: Do you know where your parents and your grandparents were born?
LEBEDUN: My maternal grandparents were born in Silesia – my grandfather’s people were born in Silesia. My paternal grandparents, the male part comes from Silesia which used to be a part of Czechoslovakia, and the female side (the grandparents on my mother’s side) were from some place like Bohemia, Germany, something like that. My paternal grandmother’s parents are from Hungary. It was Austria, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before.
BERNSTEIN: What did your father do when you were growing up?
LEBEDUN: My father worked for the government in railroad, he was a railroad man. We were not rich, but we were comfortable. He made a good living and we were growing up after World War I in Czechoslovakia which was very democratic. When I was born and raised, there were only a few Jewish families. I was the only Jew in my school and there was little if any anti-Semitism.
My maternal grandparents lived not too far, about 80 kilometers from where we lived and since my father was a railroad man, we paid very little for our train fare, so I was forever with my grandmother. My grandmother died when I was older and she was a very wise, beautiful lady. And she taught me very useful things to do as a child. There also lived one of my aunts. She never had any children and she was very strict and she taught me with power. I didn’t like it very much then, but up to this day I am very grateful.
BERNSTEIN: What languages were spoken at your home?
LEBEDUN: When I was very little – there were four of us, two girls and two boys. My mother taught us Slovakian and German, and they kept their Hungarian language as a language between them. And I think I was about eight or maybe younger, when I heard my mother tell my father one time, “Well, I guess I might as well teach the kids Hungarian also because they understand.” So, all three languages were spoken in our home.
BERNSTEIN: Were you the oldest of four children?
LEBEDUN: Yes, and my sister and then my two brothers were the youngest. And my sister and I survived by luck, and maybe God wanted us to live.
When the trouble started in Germany with Hitler, we felt so safe.
BERNSTEIN: Were your parents involved with politics at the time?
LEBEDUN: No, because a government employee does not get involved in politics. Our president at that time, before the formation of the Czechoslovakian Republic, was living in exile in America and he also married an American woman. And he worked for democracy after World War I, to Czechoslovakia. And, there was anti-Semitism. There always is in a democratic country where we lived, but we didn’t feel it as much as a rule.
BERNSTEIN: Can you think of an example of a way you were aware that anti-Semitism existed?
LEBEDUN: Well, one time one of my schoolmates, because I was the only Jew in my class – there were a few in my sister’s class and very few in my brothers’ classes. She said, “Oh I hate her, she’s Jewish and she knows so much. The Jews always think they know so much!”
BERNSTEIN: By comments that were said?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And then she got very ill and she was dying. She requested my presence to apologize to me. That was a very Catholic place in the country of Slovakia where I was born. And there was very little Jewish instruction because there were so few of us. And one of the teachers who taught in public school taught us to read Hebrew and a little bit about the Jewish people. He taught us to read Hebrew but not to understand Hebrew. And I read it fluently but I didn’t understand a word.
BERNSTEIN: This was like in your religious school?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And so many times I wound up on the national holidays either when I was in high school – the first year I went with the Catholic girls to school and there was no division between church and state, like we know it here in America. So, when they had a religious hour, I stood in the hallway. I didn’t want to disturb any person. One-half an hour brisk walk to go home and I couldn’t make it just in an hour. And during winter time and in the fall when it started to rain. The weather wasn’t conducive to walking home and walking back. So the Monsignor – he knew me, he saw me in the hallway and he said, “Just come in, my child. You sit wherever you want to sit and you will see which religion is better, yours or ours.” And at the end of that school year when we filed out and he blessed us, he came to me and said, “Well, what do you think? Which religion is better?” And I said to him, “In all due respect for your position, Monsignor, we have one God and we pray to Him.” And he blessed me and he used to call on me during the school year and he would ask if I understand, and I told him, “Yes.” So, I wound up in the Catholic church at the national holiday.
BERNSTEIN: Your family was Orthodox?
BERNSTEIN: And were they observant?
LEBEDUN: Yes, my mother more than my father because on my father’s side there were already several converts. His brother married a Catholic woman and his great, great uncle was a Protestant bishop in Australia.
BERNSTEIN: How far from where you lived was the Jewish community situated?
LEBEDUN: The temple was not too far from the high school and the school was in the middle of the city. And we didn’t have much of celebration and we had national holidays. And we went to the temple and the rabbi prayed in Hebrew which most of us didn’t understand. And the Hebrew was much different than here. And we went to the temple and the synagogue, and my mother wisely got prayer books. One side was in Hebrew and one side was in German. So, all of us kids spoke German and we could understand what we were praying for.
BERNSTEIN: Because otherwise it was meaningless?
BERNSTEIN: How much younger than you were your sister and your brothers?
LEBEDUN: My sister was only 19½ months younger. My brothers were two and one-half years junior to my sister and down the line two and one-half years again. So there was about four years difference between myself and my brother, the third one and six years difference my younger brother.
BERNSTEIN: Did you all read newspapers and did you have radios?
LEBEDUN: Yes we read. And my father brought a record player. A radio we didn’t have. He put the record player together – “His Master’s Voice – RCA.” And we always listened to classical music.
BERNSTEIN: “His Master’s Voice – RCA” – that must have been a prize possession in your house.
LEBEDUN: Not many people had it. In town there weren’t any decent record players and when he was home in the evening he would go to sleep with classical music.
BERNSTEIN: Do you still like classical music?
LEBEDUN: Oh, yes. And my mother always had books. She had a huge, thick doctor book and when we went into puberty, she sat down and explained to me first the changes in my body because she was raised in the dark in those days, and first, you know, she thought she was dying because she was bleeding, you know.
BERNSTEIN: That was very smart of your mom to realize how it was for her and how she wanted it to be different for you.
LEBEDUN: And she was raised very strictly. My grandmother had 12 children and she decided that when she had children she wouldn’t raise her children as strict as her mother had.
BERNSTEIN: Is this the grandmother you were talking about?
LEBEDUN: Yes, and my aunt used to say, “Mother, why are you so easy with your grandchildren?” So, she said, “Times changed and with you I couldn’t do it. There were too many of you. But times changed and things will be different and women might not have so many children like I had. And it will be easier.”
BERNSTEIN: How about your father’s parents?
LEBEDUN: My father’s parents I didn’t know too much because his mother died quite young and his father married a woman from another part of town – another part of the state. And I remember my father and I went to visit him. Sometimes my mother and my father went to visit him and they came to visit us but there wasn’t a closeness. When my grandfather died, I was seven years old and I remember how hard that was because he and I used to walk. He was a very tall man. He was about 6’3” or more, and my grandmother was 4’9”.
BERNSTEIN: This is your mother’s father?
LEBEDUN: My mother’s side. And she used to tell me – she was very beautiful – how my grandfather used to pick her up and she had one child in her arms and one in her belly. He was tall and strong. He had a beard and a beautiful voice. And he always used to conduct the services. He was the chazan. Then the whole vicinity where my parents lived, they used to come Friday night to services. And even the Catholic priest – he always told him, “David, keep your windows open so I can hear your beautiful liturgy when you sing.”
LEBEDUN: Well, he was a little more than a cantor because from the whole vicinity they knew him as a rabbi. And their father was trained to be a rabbi. But he loved the town where he was and he didn’t want to go some place else.
BERNSTEIN: On your father’s side – did he have siblings?
LEBEDUN: Yes, my father had a brother and a sister, and because their mother died, you know – when your mother dies there is a difference. She died when the two older ones were married already, but the youngest wasn’t. And my aunt lived very far on the other side of the country – my aunt on my father’s side. And always when she came for a visit, I remember she used to be very angry at my uncle, the youngest, because he married a Gentile woman and she always said that God punished her. When his mother died, he grew up needing a mother and didn’t have one.
BERNSTEIN: His brother’s wife passed away?
LEBEDUN: No, my grandfather’s wife passed away on my father’s side and that was a punishment, from God.
BERNSTEIN: Do you have any recollection of discussions about world events?
LEBEDUN: Oh, yes. But, we felt so safe in Czechoslovakia because we were such a beautiful democratic country and we used to always see people from Poland come across the border and come in to Czechoslovakia. I remember when there was talk of ghettos in Poland and ghettos in Romania. There were some ghettos in Hungary but not too prevalent. There was one in Budapest which was the capital city of Hungary but Jews did not necessarily had to live in the ghetto, they chose to live in the ghetto. And the same thing in Germany and the same thing in Austria. But we had an old ghetto in Prague, an old, old ghetto in Bratislava which was the capital of Slovakia. But Jews did not have to live there. If they wanted to live there, it was fine, but they didn’t have to live there. So, we felt particularly safe because they called Czechoslovakia “Little America.”
BERNSTEIN: When they referred to ghettos and said that people could live there, they didn’t have to. What was your impression of what a ghetto was?
LEBEDUN: Well, when I studied in Bratislava at the Academy, my landlady took me to the ghetto. It was walled on three sides, not on four sides. And I saw men with long beards with t’fillin and tallis, walking around like that. And the little boys with the side curls and so on – and I always felt sorry for them. Why do they have to do this, when they don’t have to? I wouldn’t say I was assimilated – maybe I was. The Polish girls in the camp used to say, “Oh, you are a different Jew,” because maybe I had more cosmopolitan views and maybe because I was better educated and maybe because the situation in our country was different from theirs. I’m speaking in concentration camps. Even the Polish political prisoners, when we were together in Auschwitz, they taught me how different the Jews were from Czechoslovakia than from Poland. They didn’t have the same chance that we had.
BERNSTEIN: Well, considering that Czechoslovakia was much more democratic, yes you had a different background than they did.
Did you consider your family close?
LEBEDUN: Oh, yes, we were very close. Our uncles were in America, but the ones which lived in Slovakia, we were very close. We helped them on the train to see my grandmother and Aunt Regina. We were so very, very close.
BERNSTEIN: Now, what about your schooling? You graduated from high school?
LEBEDUN: Yes, and I went for one year to university – from high school, to relatives, like a junior college here. As to a university, I decided that was not for me. I used to have a beautiful voice and our director from high school, he had somebody he knew who was more than a teacher, but also the second in command at the Academy in Bratislava. And he recommended me, so I was studying there drama and voice. And for a whole year and I got a stipend. And for six months my parents didn’t have to pay for the schooling because I got a scholarship. And then I could have gone the other year in maybe a couple of months but no Jews were allowed.
BERNSTEIN: So, after your first year they prohibited Jews from attending?
LEBEDUN: Yes, any type of schools or anything to do with education.
BERNSTEIN: How old were you when you started feeling restrictions were put on you?
LEBEDUN: I wasn’t quite 18.
BERNSTEIN: You were single at the time?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And the following year I got married.
BERNSTEIN: What did you do when they said you couldn’t go to school anymore?
LEBEDUN: I stayed home and helped mother. There was no place to go. Within a year I was married and my husband had a brother who lived in Hungary and he had some relatives. My mother-in-law’s family were from Hungary. And we could have gone to Hungary but not with the family and we didn’t want to leave his mother.
BERNSTEIN: His mother was living in Czechoslovakia?
BERNSTEIN: What did your husband do?
LEBEDUN: He owned a sporting goods store.
BERNSTEIN: And his name?
LEBEDUN: Tibor Schneider.
BERNSTEIN: At that time when things were changing, what did you sense around you when you stayed at home? Was it comfortable to go out or not?
LEBEDUN: For a while it was allright and then put a curfew on Jews after six o’clock and you couldn’t go out then. And my former principal of high school told me, “Can’t you run away or something, leave?” And I said, “I cannot leave my husband and my sisters and my brothers.” And then we had to wear a band with a Jewish star on at first. And then they took it off and we had to wear a Jewish star on the right lapel of the coat. And one time he saw me walking in the street and he came to me and took it off, and he said, “Now you don’t have to wear it.” So, I said, “What’s going to happen when Mr. Winterhebst, the German party boss, will see me?” And he said, “He knows you and he’s going to turn the other way.” And this was true. Mr. Winterhebst and my husband were good friends and they used to go skiing together. And my parents lived still in the house he owned, about one half hour walk from my house in the city. And I used to go with my parents and most of the people knew me and knew my parents and when they saw me, they looked the other way so they don’t have to come to me and get involved.
BERNSTEIN: Was there any consideration given to the whole family coming to join relatives in America?
LEBEDUN: Not at that time. My uncle, my mother’s brother, lived in Austria and it was such a well-kept secret. Everything is fine with the Jews in Czechoslovakia. Our Archbishop in Slovakia joined the German party and that’s why the Jews from Slovakia, they were the first to go to concentation camps. And he was the Archbishop for Slovakia…Hlinka. In the name of God, how many terrible things were done over the centuries of mankind.
BERNSTEIN: How did you feel when they first had you wearing an arm band?
LEBEDUN: Very ostracized. When I went to visit my grandmother, I could no longer hop on the train and go to see her. I had to go to the city hall to get permission which was always granted to me. I was lucky. And I always was told, “When you get to the station, before you board the train, take your Jewish star off.” It was sewn on but it was blindstitched from inside and it was very easy to take it off. And when I came to the window to buy my ticket, the ticketmaster knew my father and that he was Jewish. When it started, they told my father that he can keep on working, but he said, “No, if I have to wear this Jewish star, I am not working.” So, when I came to the window to buy the ticket, he looked at me and he said, “Hilda, take it off.”
BERNSTEIN: And did you take it off?
LEBEDUN: Yes, because it was safer to travel without it.
BERNSTEIN: So your father was already feeling that he did not want to be in the situation.
LEBEDUN: Right. But there was no place to go. See, when one wanted to flee, two people can do it easier than families – that was later on. In the beginning nobody wanted to leave. My uncle said, “Oh, things won’t be so bad. I am sending my one girl to New York and when things get worse, I will send your two girls,” he told my mother, “to New York.” But it never came to pass. My younger cousin, who also survived, she was caught with her husband. They fled to Hungary because her husband was – his family was from Hungary. He was taken into the Russian army and she got there on false papers and then she was caught somehow and that was almost the end of the war. And she was sent to a sort of a concentration camp to Austria which wasn’t like we were, and from there they were sent to Bergen-Belsen and they were there for two days when they were rescued. I was for three years in concentration camp which was also rarely happening because there we didn’t survive that long. I remember when we came one time when we were on the run in higher Silesia and the SS woman said, “What camp were you from?” So I said, “Auschwitz.” She said, “And you’re still alive? How come you still alive?” There were about 200 girls in the transport from Slovakia. We were the first ones to be sent on a transport to Denmark.
BERNSTEIN: You were in your group from your area?
LEBEDUN: Not just from my area, from all of Slovakia – 200.
BERNSTEIN: And young girls?
BERNSTEIN: As you saw things getting worse, what happened to your husband’s business?
LEBEDUN: It was taken away. In the meantime my parents sold their home and we felt it was safer to move closer to where we were, and of course they had to deposit their money in the bank and they could draw 100 crowns a month on it. There were restrictions as to where we could go shopping for food, to what stores. All the Jewish stores were taken away, just outright.

Tape 1 - Side 2 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: When you got together with your family, what did you say? What did you think was going to happen?
LEBEDUN: Well, my parents didn’t want to talk too much about it, but they always said, “We love you, we love each other. Whatever happens, we will be together. We just have to trust our God and He will help us.” That’s why the prayer, Sh’ma Yisrael is so dear to me. That was the prayer my mother taught us and when I saw her for the last time, she said, “Whenever you feel bad, just say this prayer and God will help you, and just trust in God and He will help you.” And I didn’t question, I never did, even when I saw in the concentration camp some of the atrocities and deaths. I just had such a strong faith because my mother said God would help me, and He was just going to help me.
BERNSTEIN: That was a very strong conviction.
LEBEDUN: And when I saw her the last time, she blessed me and she said, “Whenever you are low from seeing the terrible things,” and I don’t know how she knew I did because they took them to a different barrack and they were kept there for seven days because they decided to do away with them. And she said, “Whenever you can help, even though you are endangering your life, mine kind (she used to say – she called me that), do it and help no matter what kind of danger you are going to be in, God will help you and keep you alive – promise me.” Somebody will rescue you, someone from the family. She knew that time that I found my sister. “You have to stay together forever because there’s going to be only the two of you.” How did she know it? I don’t know.
BERNSTEIN: You were all taken together?
LEBEDUN: No. My husband was taken first and we were told that the men were going to work for the government, which was a lie but nobody knew. And my sister went to learn a trade. She wanted to be a beautician, so she went to a neighboring city to live with my uncle who by that time moved from Austria. He never took Austrian citizenship. And he was a Czechoslovakian citizen even when he lived in Austria. And he lived in Czechoslovakia with his family. So she was living there with him. And his two daughters by that time had left for Hungary and one for America, and he was trying to get papers for us but he was too late.
BERNSTEIN: What year was this?
LEBEDUN: It was in ’39. Because in 1938 Hitler marched to Czechoslovakia – his troops marched to Slovakia, to Poland.
BERNSTEIN: So they came in in ’38?
BERNSTEIN: And your husband was taken to a work camp?
LEBEDUN: In ’38, that’s when all the young men were taken. No Jew could or go to school or anything. And it was ’39 when they took all the young men from 18 to 40.
BERNSTEIN: So was it in 1938 that you had to start wearing the arm band?
LEBEDUN: Yes, in ’38. In ’39 they took all the men to work camps and they shipped them straight to Poland.
BERNSTEIN: Then he went to Poland?
LEBEDUN: Yes. There was a camp in the city – Sammel lager – means a – where they grouped them by thousands and thousands sent them in shipment to Poland to concentration camps.
BERNSTEIN: So the work camp was in Poland?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And it wasn’t a work camp. They just said it was going to be a work camp. It was a concentration camp.
BERNSTEIN: Did you hear anymore from your husband?
LEBEDUN: No. And that was in the fall – October – they took them in and my husband. And the following spring, beginning the end of March – no – beginning of March, they took all the unmarried young girls.
BERNSTEIN: How did your husband receive word he was going to go?
LEBEDUN: We just got a notice from the police department, the city hall, to report in three days to go to a work camp. And one could take one suitcase of clothing and a smaller suitcase with food for three days.
BERNSTEIN: How did you feel that he was leaving and how did he feel?
LEBEDUN: Terrible. The time was so bad the year before they took him. Freedom was restricted and we had fear for our lives and what can happen. And I pleaded with him that I should get pregnant so that if he never comes back, I should have a baby. And he said no because of what could happen to the child. And I was very wise too because when I saw in concentration camp what happened to the women who were pregnant.
BERNSTEIN: So at the time you already thought that he would not come back?
LEBEDUN: It was just a premonition. But there was no place to run.
BERNSTEIN: Did you go with him when he had to report?
LEBEDUN: I went with him to the train and then, of course, I had to come back and I went to my former high school director and I told him that I knew where they took the men and said, “Would you give me a passage to Zilina? I want to see if I can see my husband once again.” And he said, “I can give you a passage from here that you can board a train, and you be very careful and don’t do nothing foolish. I want to see you come back.” My hair was much lighter – it got darker, and I had light eyes. Somehow I didn’t look too Jewish. I got to my uncle’s house, and he found out where the camp site was and he was very much against my going. And I found it, and I was walking – they were behind barbed wire, and one of the parties, the henchmen, the soldiers said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “You have my husband in there.” And he says, “Oh, we do? You were stupid enough to marry a Jew?” I said, “Yes.” I lied, I said, “Yes.” And I told him, “I’ll give you 100 crowns if you can bring him out so that I can see him. I love him very much.” So, he looked at me and said, “Well, I guess so.” And he asked me his name and he said it would take a while and “I want the money right now.” So I gave it to him and he said, “I have to find out which barrack he is in.” And he was about half an hour and I saw my husband coming toward me and we managed to sort of embrace and kiss through the barbed wire, and he said, “Take care of yourself, and if you want to run, run.” I said, “I can’t, there are my parents and there is your mother and two sisters and your brother.” So, he said, he kind of looked at me and he said, “I love you very much.” (CRYING) Then the soldier said, “You’d better go.” So, I thanked him and I left and (CRYING) I cried all the way back to my uncle’s house. And I stayed there for a couple of days. I thought that was the last time I was going to see my sister. And then I boarded a train and I came back. There were lots of German soldiers on the train. Usually the officers were riding the passenger train and the soldiers were behind in trains. And I was sitting with an empty seat next to me and I saw a German insignia and he said to me, “Is this seat free?” And he said, “Verflucht,” he said, “I forget that this is a heathen country and you don’t speak German.” I said, “Oh, yes I do. If you want to sit down, sit down. This is a free seat.” And he said, “Oh, you speak German. How come you speak German?” And so I said, “My mother had German in school and so she taught us German.” “Oh, that’s great! Where are you going?” So I told him and he said, “Is it far?” And I said, “No.” “How far is it to Poland?” he said. I said, “A good distance.” That was an express train I was on. And then he said, “Well, we are the victors. We are one week in Poland too long because we come to Poland already. We are going against the Russians and then we take the world.” And I said, “Oh, I see.” I was thinking, “Maybe not.” So he pulled out some German candy and some cookies and he offered me some and I was kind of quivering, I was kind of averting my face from him so he wouldn’t see my eyes. And he said, “Well I am glad that there is some intelligence in this forsaken country because you know we Germans are the masters of the world.” So I said, “Well that’s good. At least you can teach us better ways, can’t you?” He said, “Why are you looking that way? Can’t you look in my face?” So I thought, “Well, here he goes.” I looked at him and he said, “What do you see?” I said, “Well you are very young to be an officer.” He said, “Oh, I told you we are a superior race. I am 25 and I command 5,000 men.” And he brought out pictures of his mother and father….got to my town, and I said, “Well, this is my station.” And he said, “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?” So, I looked at him and I said, “If you want me to.”
BERNSTEIN: At that point were you about 20 years old?
LEBEDUN: Not quite 20.
BERNSTEIN: Where was the camp that you husband was in?
LEBEDUN: Let’s see – where did we all wind up. We were in Auschwitz and he was in – I forgot – Lublin. That was a little further inland from Auschwitz but not too far from the border of Czechoslovakia and it was the very first concentration camp.
BERNSTEIN: How many people went when they took him?
LEBEDUN: Well, in his convoy there were thousands. Every day they sent thousands.
BERNSTEIN: How many people from your city?
LEBEDUN: There were not too many. There were about 15 men. There were not many Jews, so that’s why they got and gathered together in the Sammel lager in Zilina from the whole of Slovakia. Sammel lager means to put together. And we went from there too.
BERNSTEIN: Have you any thoughts as to why they started with that group?
LEBEDUN: Yes that’s why they put them all – everybody healthy – for work.
BERNSTEIN: And did you believe that?
LEBEDUN: We believed them. It was a terrible thing in Europe to believe that the Germans are maybe more intelligent – and they are very intelligent and they are very industrious and that they cannot do the things like being very cruel to the Polish Jews in the ghetto.
BERNSTEIN: You wanted to believe that also?
LEBEDUN: We wanted to believe we were safe in Czechoslovakia because whoever could come from Poland, came to Czechoslovakia. Before they closed the border, it wasn’t so hard to do.
BERNSTEIN: The people you knew in your city were very sensitive to your situation. They were comfortable with you being Jewish and wanted to help you.
LEBEDUN: Yes. They were very comfortable. They did not look at me as though I was Jewish, you know.
BERNSTEIN: But you still felt comfortable going to the principal of your school and asking for…?
LEBEDUN: Yes. The principal of my school, he drove me – his father and mother were servants in a Jewish family which he joined always. His mother was the upstairs maid and his father was the farmer. When his father had an accident on the farm with a tractor or something and he got killed. They kept him (the principal) on and they sent him to school and educated him, so he had a warm spot for the Jews. And he used to tell me – he didn’t pronounce it good – but he knew more Jewish than I, the language because he learned from the family. They lived in a separate little house but they were there eating in the kitchen and he used to tell me, “You know, you are my star pupil and I’m so proud of you. And I’ll tell you why,” he said, “because we Goyim haben mit chazer den copf verschtopft.” That means that the Gentiles, their brains are stuffed with pork. And I looked at him – and his family came from Poland and fled Poland even if they were not Jewish, they were Catholics. And his name was Dlugopolsky. And I looked at him and I said, “You know, I didn’t know this expression before.” He taught me this expression. He said, “You didn’t know I forget – I forget when you don’t speak in Yiddish, when you speak German.” And he used to tell me, “How do you say it in high German, you know, from Yiddish?”
Up to the very last time when my parents got the notice to report, I didn’t. So, I went to my mother and I said, “Did you get a notice?” She said, “Yes, did you?” I said, “No.” So she said, “You run and save yourself.” I said, “No.” I kissed her and my two brothers and my father and I ran out of the apartment. And I ran where? To my principal. And I said, “My parents got the notice. Why didn’t I?” So, he said, “Hilda, I wish I could tell you more. Go and run. I’ll send you some place where you can be safe for a while.” I said, “No way, wherever my parents go and my brothers, I’ll go too.” So he said, “Are you sure?” And I replied, “Yes.” So he said, “Well, I’ll give you a notice that you have to go to Winterhebst, to the German authority to O.K. it.” And that man was sitting across from me like you are and he couldn’t look at me straight.
BERNSTEIN: So you asked him to get you on that transport?
BERNSTEIN: When was that?
LEBEDUN: It was the end of March, 1942 and before March was out, we were already in Zilina. There were so many circumstances. My grandmother used to say, “When there is a new child, when a human is born, he gets a candle. And some of us get long candles and some of us get short candles. And there is a fate, a predestination from that moment on. For this human being. And most of it we cannot escape.” And I said, “Grandmother, why do you talk about this as though somebody has already died?” And she said, “Well, I guess he or she got a small candle.” And up to this day, when I hear somebody died, I say, “Well, I guess they had a small candle.”
Then my older son used to come home from college – he studied psychology and psychiatry and he read books, and he said, “Mother, we make our own destinations.” I said, “Up to a point.” “Mother, in my books it says this.” So, I used to tell him, “I don’t have the book you are reading but there is some other power in this world who predestines your life up to a point. I didn’t do anything because there was nothing to do except I prayed to God a lot and I tried to keep the promise I made to your grandmother that I’m not going to leave none of them. I didn’t contribute to my life, did I?”
BERNSTEIN: How did he respond to that?
LEBEDUN: So, he said, “Mom, I will leave you this book. Will you read it?” And we had many discussions about this, after all, all the world thinking. “Here in America we have books,” and I said, “The books are very beautiful and they are basic to our life, education, but I told you life itself evolves and continues in a little different ways and sometimes you cannot escape your fate. And you’re going to find out some of it when you got a little older and have more experience.” He was in a car accident with a friend. The friend was driving. And I hopped on the bus and my husband came home and saw me. And then we went to the hospital and got there about two o’clock at night. And he was kind of out of it because they gave him painkillers. And I said to him, “You’re going to be allright.” And he said, “Mom, is that you?” I said, “Sure, it’s not my ghost, and you’re going to be allright.” And the next morning he woke up and he said, “How did you know I was going to be allright?” And I said, “I just knew and I prayed.”
BERNSTEIN: When your family got the notice…?
LEBEDUN: And when finally I got the notice – I got the O.K. from Mr. Winterhebst.
BERNSTEIN: What were you able to take with you?
LEBEDUN: The same thing. A suitcase with clothes and another suitcase with food for ten days. And there were rumors then, “If you have jewelry to bring it with you because in war camps you can trade it for food.” So, I had a camel hair coat, it was made for me. And I put my jewelry in the padding – the shoulder pads and one chain with a little angel I put it around my neck because my mother gave it to me when I was 13 years old. You see, we didn’t have Bat Mitzvahs – Bar Mitzvahs the boys had. This is some kind of a new deal in this country, the girls having Bat Mitzvahs. But she gave it to me when I was 13. And I sewed everything in and that’s how we went. And we came again to that camp.
BERNSTEIN: And your brothers were how old at that time?
LEBEDUN: My youngest brother was Bar Mitzvah in October, so he was a little past 13, and my older brother was 15½.
BERNSTEIN: And your grandparents were not with you?
LEBEDUN: My grandmother died really long before this terrible thing happened, and even though the Gentiles were not permitted to associate with Jews anymore, when she died, the whole town came to her funeral.
BERNSTEIN: So you stayed with your family then? You went down to the same place you called Sammel lager?
BERNSTEIN: And how many people were there?
LEBEDUN: Oh, thousands. And before my parents got their notice, my mother said, “I want to find out how my sister is, Gina.” She lived in a small town – my aunt, Regina. And, I said, “Mother, I will go.” She said, “No, I will send Gene (my older brother).” He resembled me a lot. “And Gene will be safe to travel. Get him a pass.” So, I went to my principal and he got me a pass for my brother.
BERNSTEIN: How was he able to get passes?
LEBEDUN: Because he was in charge. And Gene went – Eugene was his name – and he was supposed to see about my aunt and if she’s there and if she’s well and then come back on the next train and he didn’t. Then in three days we had to report, give them the key to our apartment. And we left everything behind and went to that place to the city hall and they marched us to a train. And my mother was so grieved. And I said, “Mom, don’t worry, he’s allright. He’ll be back.” And she said, “Oh, I know he’s allright but he will be frightened alone.” So, there was nothing we could do. And we got to Zilina.
BERNSTEIN: Your sister was in Zilina?
LEBEDUN: Oh, she was already gone from there.
BERNSTEIN: Did you know that at the time?
BERNSTEIN: And Gene had gone to check on your aunt?
LEBEDUN: On my aunt – not in Zilina. And we came in and I immediately said there was another member of our family who went to check on our aunt. And he said, “Oh, that’s nice. O.K., we mark it down.” And we were in a huge barrack with people from other places.
BERNSTEIN: They took you off the train at Zilina?
LEBEDUN: Yes. Because there were not too many Jews. The old Jews were left behind, the old ones and ill ones. And they would be sent to a different work camp, the disabled and ill ones. And we were there about two days and we were together, my mother, my father and my two brothers.
BERNSTEIN: And your two brothers?
LEBEDUN: My one brother, excuse me. We were huddled in a corner just praying that Gene will come some place or go some place and we will be reunited, so wherever we have to go, we will be together, and one of the German guards said…

Tape 2 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

“I need two people who speak German.” And nobody came forward. And, he said, “Nobody comes forward, O.K., I’ll find out from your registrations.” And when we went to register, my mother said, “Tell him you speak German.” I said, “Why mother? I don’t want to.” She said, “Just listen to me. Something tells me you should tell him.” So I told him. So he went to the roster of the barrack and he called my name and another man’s name. And I said, “What do you need us for?” And he said, “Well, seems that you,” he used profounding to Jews, “speak that forsaken language which we don’t understand. We need somebody who speaks our language to see that everything is in order. Verdaten zau Juden, you damn dirty Jews.” That’s what they always said, “Verdaten zau Juden. What did you do to our language, our beautiful language? You degraded it.” He had so much hate for Jews so much hate.
Anyway, they sent everyday thousands and thousands to transports to work camps and I was already involved in it – and my family but not me – not us. And I said to my mother, “I don’t know what’s going on.”
BERNSTEIN: What did he have you do?
LEBEDUN: Oh, to run through the camp and give orders: “This barrack must get ready for tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, and these are the people who have to be on.” Or, “Run to this or this barrack. There is somebody who has some kind of an illness. Tell him to come up front and we’ll see what we can do.”
BERNSTEIN: But it gave your family some protection, didn’t it?
LEBEDUN: Yes, and he used to use me a lot. There were others from other barracks but he used to use me a lot. “Go to the barracks.” There was always a person in charge of the barracks. “And tell him 12 o’clock sharp, he should send five people.” Or, “We heard that there was a disturbance last night in that barrack. Go there and help the man in charge.” You know, I just ran errands for them. And in the meantime we were agonizing about Gene and where he could be. And we were there two weeks – no, a little over a week. And one time I asked him, “Please can you do me a favor? My brother was left behind and we would like to have him with us. Can you check on him?” He said, “What for?” I said, “Well, you know Jews are very family minded and we want him with us. And wherever you are sending us, we would like to go together.” He said, “Oh, yeah, I’ll think about it.” So I didn’t hear anything from him. It was two weeks we were there and in the middle of the third week, he sent for me, the commandant. I went to the office and I saw my brother. And I walked in and we ran toward each other and hugged each other. And he said, “So this is your brother you were looking for. Well, he just walked in last night.”
Above where my parents lived on the second floor lived another family, the Hammers. She was Jewish and he wasn’t. And they had two children. The son was my brother’s age and they went to school together. And when he came back after we left and he saw the apartment was empty – open – well, not empty, but we were not there. So he ran up to the Hammers to find out what happened, so he was told. And they told him to stay with them and they would pass him as their son. And he said, “Oh no, I have to go where my parents are.” So, they sent him to my former principal and found out we went to Zilina. And he went and he hopped on the train.
BERNSTEIN: What held him up? Did he say what took him so long?
LEBEDUN: He stayed with my aunt longer than necessary because she cried and cried and then she sent somebody to the station master to find out when it is better for him to go back, when there are not so many German soldiers traveling at that time. She was worried that he would be caught and killed. Then she got word that the train was almost empty coming from the other city, so he walked down to the station which was a good half an hour walk, and got on the train. And he changed trains in Zilina to come to Vrutky. And he walked – it was not too far. And he first walked to my house and there was nobody there. And he went to who stayed there to inquire when they left. Then he walked to my parents’ house and there was nobody there, so he went to the Hammers and they wanted to keep him but he wouldn’t stay.
BERNSTEIN: In Zilina, where were you staying? You said “barracks.”
LEBEDUN: Just, we were in barracks. We were sleeping on the floor and every time they had a thousand people, they sent them out to Auschwitz because Auschwitz was the first general camp and Lublin was the first man’s camp. Of all the times, they were the first, we were the first. We were the first victims to go to the slaughter from Slovakia. Even though other Jews were living in ghettos in Poland and in Romania, we were the first ones to go out of the best country in Europe.
BERNSTEIN: What did you hear about your sister? You said she had been sent on ahead of you.
LEBEDUN: Nothing.
BERNSTEIN: How did you find out she’d been sent on?
LEBEDUN: We knew because my uncle sent the word.
BERNSTEIN: Once your brother got back – ?
LEBEDUN: My brother got back and we were still there two weeks and then we were sent out.
BERNSTEIN: How did they send you?
LEBEDUN: Well, we had to have our things ready for eight o’clock the following morning.
BERNSTEIN: And did they give you a destination?
LEBEDUN: No, no destination.
BERNSTEIN: Did they say you’d be traveling a certain number of days?
LEBEDUN: No, nothing.
BERNSTEIN: So, you got on the train…
LEBEDUN: We got on the train in cattle wagons.
BERNSTEIN: Was it in cattle wagons on the first trip too?
BERNSTEIN: And how many people were in there?
LEBEDUN: Oh, I think we were more than 100 people in one cattle wagon. It was cramped.
BERNSTEIN: Were you sitting or standing?
LEBEDUN: Wherever you could stand or sit but there wasn’t much sitting room. It was a little better than when we were shipped in cattle wagons from camp and we were packed like sardines. We went in cattle wagons to Auschwitz.
BERNSTEIN: And this was Zilina –
LEBEDUN: From Zilina.
BERNSTEIN: And how many days did it take, would you say?
LEBEDUN: It took a day and a half, I think, because we were overnight in the cattle wagon and it was about noon when we got to Auschwitz.
BERNSTEIN: And this was in April?
LEBEDUN: It was the beginning of April, 1942, about the 10th or 11th of April. I never wrote it down because maybe in the beginning I wanted to forget it, I don’t know. And there are so many things that days escaped me. Maybe that was it, an escape mechanism for my sanity or something. Because some girls know this better than some of us do. They found another escape mechanism. They hid their number with bandaids and long sleeves and I never did that.
When we got to Auschwitz…
BERNSTEIN: What can you remember about that trip, that day and a half trip?
LEBEDUN: Horrible. In the wagon where my family and I were there were professors from the university with their families and a couple doctors and they died on the way to Auschwitz. They poisoned themselves. Later on I found out, you know. And – I just can’t find the words – that’s what’s happens to me when I get emotional. My English leaves me. Some kind of a poison they took.
BERNSTEIN: So several people in your car poisoned themselves.
BERNSTEIN: Did the train stop and let people out to stretch?
LEBEDUN: No, it just went straight. Like, there was nowhere to go to the bathroom. They gave us a vessel with water or something and that’s what we did.
BERNSTEIN: How do you remember feeling?
LEBEDUN: Horrible, terrible…frightened to death!
BERNSTEIN: How did your parents show their emotion?
LEBEDUN: My parents – my mother was with tears forever and my father was holding her and wiping her tears and they were just holding us silently. And my mother was praying a lot. And when we got to Auschwitz there were uniformed SS with dogs, German Shepherds. And, “Come on out, come on out, come on out.” “Men stay and men stay and men stay, and all you women and children.” And you see they kept on questioning at the camp where we were, “How old are your brothers?” And I said, “Oh, my brother is 16½” and he was short. And he looked very young. My parents looked very young. My brother was very dark, dark complected, jet black hair.
BERNSTEIN: Was this your younger or older brother?
LEBEDUN: The older brother.
BERNSTEIN: O.K., so you gave them the correct age.
LEBEDUN: Yes. And they never thought that they were that age because they looked very young. My mother was 49 and my father was a year younger, 48. And they never thought that they were that old because they looked very young. Even though my father had dark eyes, he didn’t look Jewish. He had a moustache. He looked like a Slovak from the mountains. And my mother could pass for a German. She had light eyes and she had a shorter nose. My sister had her nose. And my nose was broken here. I have a slightly deviated septum. And my brother who resembled me was very light too. My sister had dark hair and my youngest daughter looks like her. And my sister looks more Jewish because she was darker.
BERNSTEIN: They called for the women and children to come out. And was that in single file?
LEBEDUN: Well, sort of in groups. And I held my mother’s hand while she went down and my two brothers held her hand to get down, and I turned around and looked at my father and there was a push and I never saw my father again anymore and I didn’t see my mother and my brothers. I looked around and I stood there and then I was pushed off by one of the SS men from the train. I looked back again and I looked around and I found myself in a strange group of people.
BERNSTEIN: There were so many people being pushed?
LEBEDUN: Yes, they pushed. “Schnell, schnell – move it, move it, you filthy lousy Jews, move, you damn Jews.” And the noises and the dogs barking and we are marching. And my brother grabbed one of my suitcases with clothing, and my younger brother grabbed one of my suitcases and got me when they said leave the suitcases there, just go, with food. And they were carrying it for be alive. And I looked around and saw a huge gate and barbed wire.
BERNSTEIN: And strange people all around.
LEBEDUN: And strange people all around me and at first I read “Arbeit macht frei,” work makes free, work brings freedom. And as we came closer to the gate, the high voltage had a funny hum and I kind of froze and I was thinking, “Oh my God in heaven, what kind of hell are we coming to?” I looked around and didn’t see my mother and tears were coming down my cheeks. I was afraid to cry and there was this lady with her little girl next to me and she said in Yiddish, “Gottenu, Gottenu, have you forsaken us?” And I looked at the little girl with reddish blond curls on her head and I was thinking, “I have two brothers and a mother and I don’t see them.” (CRYING) So the woman asked, “Why are you crying? Are you alone?” And I said, “No. I turned back to get my father and my brothers and my mother, who knows where.” (CRYING) And that’s how we marched into camp and when we marched in there, there were SS women in their dark uniforms. And there were other girls in striped – our girls, and some Polish girls, Polish political prisoners were at that time in Auschwitz. And one of the girls asked me, “Are you from Slovakia?” I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Well there are some of here from Slovakia. You know, we are the first ones with the Pollocks.” And I said, “Do you know a Selma Schlesinger?” That was my maiden name. And she said, “It certainly sounds familiar. Don’t tell them your real age.” And I said, “I’m 20, I’m married two years.” And she said, “Tell them you’re younger.” And I asked why I should tell them I’m younger. “No, no, no, leave her alone, who knows what they are going to do to her.”
The two girls were talking and we were pushed into a large room with huge kettles with steaming water. “Strip your clothes.” And we stood there naked and it was kind of cold and the steam gave it such an eerie feeling. And you see naked people and you see four men shaving some of the hair from their heads. Men, our men, Jews! And I said, “Oh my God in heaven.” I felt so stripped of everything. And then I said, “Oh my God, I feel so stupid. Everybody is naked here. Where is my mother and where are my two brothers?” And there was nobody to ask. And while I was thinking this, I was pushed in front by an SS woman and she looks at my chain on my neck. She tears it off. I said, “Please, don’t take it, that was from my mother.” She says, “Oh, yah.” And she took my wedding band. I left it on. And she said, “Where did you get this from?” And I said, “I’m married, I’m 20 years old. And we were told that we are going to be together with our families. I want to be together with my husband. I lost my mother and my two brothers someplace. I want to go where my husband is.” And she said, “Oh, yah?” And pushed me forward. Then she comes back after me, “How old are you?” And I said, “I’m 20 years old.” She said, “Nah, you are not 20. You just put that ring on before, didn’t you?” And I said, “No, I’m 20 years old.” She said, “Too bad,” and pushed me forward again. Then she stopped this little red headed kid and I turned around, and this is what she said to this woman, “Oh, you married a red headed Aryan, a Gentile?” And she answers her in Yiddish and she hit her across the face. “You God forsaken, God damned Jews,” and pushed her and took her little girl aside. And she held on to that little girl, that woman. She didn’t want to let loose of her. And the mother was screaming, “Give my little girl back, I beg you, ich bitte sehr.” She says, “Allright.” So they took her and the little girl and took her out stripped naked, took them out.
And we were just sitting around, “What’s going on?” And we got dumped in that filthy big cauldron of water and they had some kind of a disinfectant in it, I think. We were dumped underneath and we were shaved everywhere there was hair. We were pushed to another little room and we were given uniform type clothing, a pants in a khaki color and a top. There were bloodstains on them. They were washed but we found bloodstains on them and that’s what we put on over our naked bodies. And we were standing there and they pushed us outside and I stood there and cried. It was just unbelievable. I just couldn’t make peace within myself. “Is this happening to me?” And a person next to me pushed me and she says, “I think there is somebody motioning to you from the barrack across the street.” And I said, “Leave me alone.” And she said, “No, look toward it – look.” And I look – my sister. And I said, “That’s my sister who came before.” She said, “Oh, you’re lucky.” And I look at her and she says to me, “My two brothers were taken before me and I don’t know if I will be lucky enough to find them.” And shortly after – she had a kerchief on her head (HILDA’S SISTER) and she sort of smuggled herself out the back and we hugged and hugged and shivered, and then finally she said, “Hilda, where are mother and father and our brothers?” (CRYING) And I said, “Here someplace.” And she said, “What do you mean – someplace?” And I replied, “Well, we came together and I turned back to see our father and then they pushed me among strange people.” So she said, “Stop crying, I will find out where they are. Stop crying. I know where you are going and I will be in the next barrack. I will be back with you.”
So she smuggled herself back and I was going to see her, of course. And we got to the barrack and it was cold. Poland in April is cold and we were shivering. And the woman in charge was a tall, beautiful Polish political prisoner, Stenya. And she came into the middle of where we were and she says, “Who speaks good German?” So, one of the other girls pushed me and I said, “I do.” And she asked me my name and everything. She asked me questions about my schooling. And she says, “Don’t shiver. You are alive. Don’t shiver.” I said, “I’m cold.” She said, “Yes, let’s go to my room.” She had a little room there and there was fire.
BERNSTEIN: Who was this?
LEBEDUN: The woman who was in charge of the barrack. They call them blockalteste, and she was a Polish political prisoner. And she said to me, “Here, come on to my room and warm up.” She said, “Don’t shiver, you’re alive.” She asked me where we were and where I came from, what schools I had and she said, “They caught me from the university.” She was in graduate school. “The blasted Germans, but my family is safe in the country,” she said.
BERNSTEIN: Her family?
LEBEDUN: Her family is safe in the country, yes. She was active in politics. You know, usually university students are.
BERNSTEIN: How did she pick you out?
LEBEDUN: Well, she came to the big room and she said, “Who speaks good German?” And the other woman, the girl who told me about her brothers, she pushed me.
BERNSTEIN: That they spoke good German?
LEBEDUN: Yes. So, I said, “I speak German.” And we were conversing in German and I said to her, “I don’t know why, but I trust you. I have a sister here.” “You do? What barrack?” And I told her I thought my sister was in the next barrack and her name was Selma Schlesinger. She said she would find out. So we had to stand roll call and we were given some vessels and it was so red. The inside was gray and the outside was red. It was a metal vessel and that was our food vessel and our brush vessel and everything, if we were lucky to get water. And then they decided that the vessel was too big and they gave us a tin cup of water. The tea they gave us stunk to high heavens.
BERNSTEIN: The what?
LEBEDUN: The bromide. They put bromide in our food.
BERNSTEIN: What’s bromide?
LEBEDUN: Bromide is a sedative, I think. Later we found out what it was, but in the beginning I thought, “Oh, my God, what is this stink? I can’t even drink it.” And I wouldn’t eat. And my sister came and told me to eat. She said, “You’re going to get sick and die. Close your nose and eat and drink it down.” It was awful food. There were rotten potatoes in that soup and if we were lucky we’d get a piece of wurst, a piece of sausage. Then later on we found out that the sausage was made from the horses they shot. And sometimes there were rotten beets and they were still dirty. There was so much grit in them, they didn’t wash them too good.
Well, in the meantime, the woman in charge of my sister’s barrack was Jewish and happened to be a cousin of ours. And she found out what happened to the mothers and the children, that they are in barrack number one by the gate and that they are going to stay there and probably be sent to a different camp where they would be employed in different ways than we were. And she also found out that my brothers took two suitcases with them. Some of them carried their suitcases and they let them. Us they didn’t but the younger children they let them carry their suitcases. And she told one of the kapos – the kapo were German women who were helping the SS, and they had just come from Germany. They were lesbians, they were murderers, they were prostitutes. And they were helping the German SS keep order over us. One German kapo – forgot her name – my sister told her, “My sister and mother and brothers came on this transport. How can you get their suitcases? They have food, sardines and sausage. She, my sister, will give you some if you let her go see my mother.” “For that, I will. Let’s see what I can arrange,” she said. So, a couple nights later, she came for me, and…

Tape 2- Side 2 (Bernstein)

When I think about it now, I don’t know what sustained me. Somehow, God or a higher power or whatever. When I was sick, my sister was well, and vice-versa, so we could sort of keep each other alive. They didn’t know we were sisters because she had, I had 7-2-9-0, and she had 4-9-2-6, she had a different transport and I was the seventh transport.
BERNSTEIN: This is the beginning of the second interview. It is March 5, 1986.
LEBEDUN: To get myself in the gear again, to remember when I was in Auschwitz proper with my sister and my sister found out where they took the mothers with children after the transport arrived. And these were not only little children but they were also children nearing their 13, 14, 15 and 16 years. And luckily my brothers were that age but they were very young and they were small, so they stayed with my mother. They were not separated. Somehow she was able to arrange with a kapo – a kapo was a German, they called them “berufs verbrecher.” They were in dissent with the government. They didn’t want to work in the ammunition factories, so they were sent to concentration camps to help the SS. And when she heard that I might have some goodies there with my mother and my brothers, she arranged for me to go see my mother. And it was on the very first barrack, right past the gate. And after lager ruhe – that means “roll call” – and the food was given, after a certain time nobody could go on the street anymore because there were guards in the guardhouses. There were tall guardhouses all around the camp and high voltage wires.
I don’t know if I will be able to put it into words, the look on my mother’s face through the glass when she heard the door, the key in that lock. And before even the door opened, she heard the footsteps, I guess, and she peeped through the glass, “Who is coming?” And her eyes just got so big and I glimpsed how she looked at me, without any hair on my head, in that dirty Russian uniform, and I came in. And the SS woman said, “You can spend a little time there. I will knock on the door for you to come out when it’s not safe. We cannot stay here too long.” And I walked in and my mother, without words, just hugged me and just squeezed me tight and she looked at me again and I saw just tears rolling down. (CRYING) And she took my hands in hers and squeezed them, “Mein kind, you find anybody we know out there?” And I said, “Yes, some I found.” “Oh, you did!” And then I saw my brothers. They came closer and my brothers were just looking like in disbelief. “Is this our sister, or are we looking at some kind of a freak?” And my mother looked down to my younger brother and she said, “Irving, don’t just stand there. Aren’t you going to say hello to your sister?” So, he came to me and he hugged me, and he looked up and said, “What’s going on?” And my bigger brother came and hugged me and he said, “Don’t ask questions, just be glad we are together again.” And then I said to my mother, “Were you able to bring something with you?” And she said she looked for me so much when we got separated, and “Were you able to find out what happened to the men?” And I said, “No, I just found out that some were taken back to another camp, but we don’t know which camp.” And she said, “Oh, your brothers carried your suitcases, they didn’t grab for ours, just yours for some reason.” And I said, “Good.” So, I rummaged in my suitcase and I found a belt and put it on me because it (dress) was loose, you know, hanging out. And I stuffed sardines and wurst and a couple pair of nylon panties – no, not nylon, they were silk – and silk stockings. And I said, “These will be for the woman who was able to bring me here.” And my mother looked at me and said, “My God in heaven, you remember what I told you.” I said, “Yes, just say your Sh’ma Yisrael every time and any time you are in danger. Just keep on repeating this prayer. And help whenever you can.” And I looked at her and she said, “Don’t question me, just do what I told you.” And I was thinking, “My God, she is asking me something, she doesn’t know what’s going on out there.
She patted my bald head and just kept on looking at me and telling me, “No matter what happens, stay together with your sister, promise me that – no matter what will happen – promise me you will try to stay alive so somebody will be able to tell what happened to our family or something.” (CRYING) And she said, “Maybe I can see you some other time, but if I never see you again, just remember me and remember how much I loved you.” Then my brothers started crying when I started crying. She wiped her tears and said, “O.K., boys, none of that! O.K., Hilda, I know you will have to go pretty soon and I thank God that he granted me my wish to see you again.” And I looked at her and said, “What do you mean, mother?” She said, “Well, I just prayed that I would see you again since we were separated on the ramp, and this is that terrible things what grandmother used to tell you about what’s going to happen to Jews. (CRYING)
And she continued, “This is a terrible thing but we are in God’s hands and you just promise me that you will never get separated from Selma. Only that I want from you.” And I said, “Sure, mother, I promise.” And at that point, Ilse, the kapo, knocked on the door and we scuttled out of the building and when we got to the block – it wasn’t a barrack because it was made out of stone in Auschwitz proper – and when we came to the hallway, then she said, “Oh, how smart you are!” She saw how fat I looked here and how I had the belt tied up to hold all the goodies I would give her. And she said, “Oh, how nice. I am going to give you a piece of this sausage.” (She referred to the salami I had.) “Sardines I cannot give you because you have nothing to open them with.” And she looked at the panties and the stockings, “Ohhh, I haven’t seen these in so long. Ohhh, I will try to get you back there if I can again.” Not out of the goodness of her heart that I should see my mother and my brothers, but for the gifts she was able to get. So, a couple days later, she came and she said, “I can arrange it. We can go tonight. I know the SS man who has – the guard duty on the nearest high tower and he will know that it’s me.” So, I said, “Can you take my sister instead of me?” And she said, “Well, no, because he knows about your height with me and I don’t want to rock the boat. You go with me and I’ll see if I can get your sister in.”
So, she arranged it and I went there a second time to see my mother. She never asked how it was out there, never. She just looked at me and she said, “You remember how to take care of yourself?” And I said, “Oh, mother, the food is so bad it stunk and there is a foul smelling tea. It smells so bad.” She said, “Drink it, force yourself to drink it. No matter how bad it is, just force yourself. And how is Selma?” And I said, “Well maybe if this goes O.K. today right now, she said she could bring Selma for you to see also.” And the kapo knocked on the door again and I walked out. We were just hugging and holding each other and we barely spoke. And she again said, “Remember your promise you gave me and just remember that you try to help even if you endanger your own life, because God will be with you, and remember your Sh’ma and pray.” And she opened the door and I left.
Then about four days later, Selma said, “I think that I’m going to see mother tonight. How did mother look? What did she say? I don’t want to make her feel bad, looking at me, because I am here already over a month and there are more changes on me than on you.” So I said, “You don’t have to tell mother anything. She knows, she feels.” And sure enough, the following evening, my sister went there and she stuffed herself with goodies. I didn’t see her that same evening because I couldn’t get out of the barrack, but the next day, after roll call, she came while we were still able to walk around. And she said, “I heard that they are going to take them away.” I asked where and she replied, “To a camp where they have just mothers and children together.” That was a lie but of course we didn’t know it at that time.
A couple of days later, Ilse came to me and asked, “Do you still have lots of things in your suitcases?” I told her there were still some things – “my brothers and my mother are eating from it, but there are still some things.” She said, “No, I don’t mean food, but clothing.” I told her I probably still had a skirt and a blouse and nightgowns. She said, “Well, I can’t get you in there anymore, or your sister, but can you write to your mother that she can give it to me? Would your mother recognize your handwriting?” I said, “Of course, she will.” So, I wrote my mother a note to give my clothing to who had brought me to her. And I wrote also, “I love you very much and I will never forget you.”
And two days later we heard that they came at night and got them – at night! Supposedly they took them to a different camp, when in truth they went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a new camp which was vacated from before we came. They killed every Russian prisoner which they caught, the Germans. After they finished building the camp on a swamp, Treblinka. Auschwitz-Birkenau and now Treblinka was the camp where the crematories were. And on the other side was a mans’ camp and past about 15 miles was Buna Vercke camp. They made synthetic rubber. Only men were working there in the factory making synthetic rubber. Of course, I didn’t know it then. I found out much later. And about a month later – first my sister found out what happened to the people, to the mothers with children – and she didn’t want to tell me. And I found out – it was a Sunday and after the afternoon roll call, we were able to meet outside of the barrack or inside. And I went inside and lay down because there was more room to lie down. Then a couple of the girls who were in my sister’s barrack came in from Slovakia and they thought I was asleep and I must have been asleep but suddenly I heard, “It’s so sad, Selma is so sad, and she can’t even share it with Hilda because she is worried that Hilda will probably break down, what they did to the mothers and children.” And I must have moved or something because somebody said, “Shh, she might be awake.” And they walked out. And I was starting to cry and scream, and I just couldn’t hold it anymore. And Stenya, who was in charge of our barrack, came running and asked, “What happened to you? What happened to you?” And I said, “It was all a lie and I want to die because that’s going to be the end of us anyway. They killed my mother and my brothers with gas!” And then they found my sister and she came and said, “Stop crying because you don’t want to have the SS here. I don’t want to lose you. That will not help.”
And at first I was angry with her for not telling me but then I thought about what my mother said and I thought my mother wouldn’t be proud to see me this way, so I stopped crying, but I felt so bad (CRYING) and for two days I didn’t eat or drink nothing. Then my sister was angry with me and she said, “Remember what mother made you promise and made me promise. We are not fulfilling our promise. You have to start eating.” I said, “Well, I am going to start eating. These two days was just in their memories.” (SOBBING)
That fall they transferred us to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
BERNSTEIN: What month was that you were talking about?
LEBEDUN: It was the beginning of April when I got there. And I think we were there about one month before they killed them.
BERNSTEIN: Your mother and brothers were there about a month? What did they do during their days?
LEBEDUN: Nothing, they just sat there.
BERNSTEIN: They were in a barracks with a lot of other families?
LEBEDUN: A barracks of just mothers and children. And in the room where my mother was, she was alone with my brothers from the whole vicinity where we used to live.
BERNSTEIN: They had a room to themselves?
LEBEDUN: No, there was one big room and there were sort of double deckers from both sides and they were sleeping on the floor. And there were several rooms. In the room where my mother was, there were about 20 children and maybe 10 adults or more. I didn’t count them but they were pretty crowded because when my mother and brothers – when I visited them – we stood by the door in the corner. We were just hugging and standing there. That was in September.
BERNSTEIN: What did you do during your days?
LEBEDUN: We worked the fields and in April and the beginning of May, there is freezing outside in Czechoslovakia, that part, and Poland. And they had us spread fertilizer – organic fertilizer with our hands.
BERNSTEIN: So, you would get up at what time?
LEBEDUN: Oh, very early in the morning. We never knew what time it was. But we were told it was five o’clock. We stood roll call for about an hour and then there were columns of 100 or 200 people marching out to go to work. And since I spoke German, Stenya, the blockalteste who was in charge of the barrack, wanted me to stay and help her keep her record of where all the people go.
BERNSTEIN: How did roll call work?
LEBEDUN: Roll call – we were standing 10 and 10, far apart and I don’t know how deep it was. The roll call was standing 10 and 10 and then a space and then 10 and 10 again so the SS could freely walk around between us and not touching us.
BERNSTEIN: I don’t understand what you mean, 10 and 10.
LEBEDUN: Like 10 in the space, but spaced out. Then 10 deep and then it was a space, and 10…
BERNSTEIN: So, in groups of 100?
BERNSTEIN: And they checked you?
LEBEDUN: Yes, they could walk freely between us without touching us. And we – Auschwitz proper was not so big, so we were spread out more in the length than in the depth. And there were four girls left to clean the barrack on each floor. They called it, “Stubendienst.” A Stube is a room cleaning person. That was a farce because we had one room for the whole block.
BERNSTEIN: And that’s what you were doing?
LEBEDUN: No, I was keeping the records. I was writing. I was like a scribe. And she used to talk to me during the day. There was no SS around. She would tell me about her life. She was going to the university and the university students staged a protest about the German occupation and that’s how she was caught and she was a political prisoner.
BERNSTEIN: And she was the one in charge of the barrack?
LEBEDUN: Yes. Each barrack had a different political prisoner – a Polish political prisoner in Auschwitz proper, as a head of the barrack.
BERNSTEIN: And how many people were in your barrack?
LEBEDUN: About 400 or 500.
BERNSTEIN: Double deck beds again?
LEBEDUN: Ohhh, triple. And they were built so flimsy. And many times the one who was on the bottom wasn’t so lucky because when the third deck came crashing down, the second one also crashed down. And sometimes we decided to sleep on the floor but the SS didn’t like it. They laughed when they crashed down. They said, “The koya crashed – good! Who got hurt? Who got killed?” They called the triple deckers koyas.
BERNSTEIN: Did you see your sister every day?
BERNSTEIN: And what was her job?
LEBEDUN: She was in the group that cleaned the barrack on her side, in her barrack.
The hum of the high voltage wire in Auschwitz proper – I don’t think I will ever get it out of my memory, the hum. It was a hum like I never heard before and probably never will again. In Auschwitz proper it was closer because they decided too fast for the final solution, I guess – before Auschwitz-Birkenau was finished.
When we got to Auschwitz-Birkenau in September, they found out they didn’t build enough barracks. There were too many of us, but then the rains came and there was lots of sickness – typhoid fever immediately. And so many people were dying, like flies. And I don’t know why I didn’t get sick then, or my sister, because at the end of October or beginning of November, we were in Auschwitz just a little over a month, when those terrible things started happening.
BERNSTEIN: This was when they moved you?
BERNSTEIN: When you first got to Auschwitz in April, did you make any friends in your barrack?
LEBEDUN: Oh, yes. There were girls from different parts of Slovakia and we were talking. Of course we made friends. And the general feeling was,“What’s this all about? They’re going to kill us anyway. Why do we have to live?” And I always said, “Well maybe not, maybe some of us will survive, maybe they will send us to a work camp, as they are saying they will. Nobody came and told us otherwise. There is no news to be gotten from any other camps. And there are still Jews living in Poland in ghettos. And maybe somebody will try to get news to us. They cannot keep us under wrap all the time.” Some of them looked at me like I’m crazy, you know – I’m just talking out of my head. And some of them said, “Well maybe there’s something to it, even if we are starved or if we get sick. Not everybody dies. Maybe it’s going to be me who will survive.”
And when we had unexplained roll calls during the night, that was just to keep us under stress. They wanted to know when we would crack or whatever happens. And when they said there was too much noise during roll call, the next morning we had more bromide in the tea they gave us, which wasn’t even hot and was always foul-tasting. But after two months in Auschwitz proper, most of us didn’t menstruate anymore. And I remember when we were in Sweden, after we were freed, that we were trying to find out what they gave us to stop our menstruation. They knew it wasn’t a bromide alone and that it wasn’t only the half starvation diet. They felt we were given some other kind of drug because lots of girls got urinary tract infections and who knows what kind of infections they died of. And I was a very crazy person. I had periods. Three times I remember I didn’t have a period for two months, not like I used to have, but I was spotting for a couple of days. And it was more of a curse than a pleasure because there was nothing I could do, and luckily didn’t go too much. We had no panties, no nothing. A couple of girls, when they saw they were still menstruating and it was trickling down, we never saw them again. But the fact that I didn’t have a king sized infection after all that, I don’t know. Because we found some grass. When I had typhoid fever, when I didn’t even remember my name, I didn’t even remember if I was a human or a vegetable or where I was or what was happening. Then for two months after that, I didn’t spot. But then I was spotting again.
BERNSTEIN: When did you have typhoid fever?
LEBEDUN: When we were transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau…

Tape 3 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: Tell me about the food.
LEBEDUN: The food was very foul smelling tea, ersatz, ersatz means artificial. The Germans were very good on ersatz. Ersatz broth, ersatz tea, everything was artificial. And at noon we got soup consisting of rotten beets and rotten potatoes, either both or one each. In the evening we got a little square of ersatz bread which consisted of sawdust and bean flour mixed together, but it wasn’t enough. We were always hungry and thirsty. And a piece of sausage which was probably made from sick or shot horses or sick animals or whatever. And even that wasn’t enough. That was our food.
When we got to Auschwitz, we got one dress. It was a blue and gray stripe, like prisoners, and nothing underneath but we got kerchiefs for our heads – white kerchiefs.
BERNSTEIN: No underpants?
LEBEDUN: No underpants, no bras, no nothing. For our feet, we got what we called “clodhoppers.” They were not only ugly shoes, but they caused very great discomfort to us. They were wooden shoes and above the ankle there was very hard burlap and we got one coarse shoelace for each shoe. There were no socks, no nothing. And of course, the shoes were too big and we rubbed our feet against them. There was no hygiene at all, very little water. And when someone wanted to get to the water, it wasn’t worth the effort because there was so much pushing and shoving that whoever wasn’t strong enough ended up on the floor, trampled on and hurt.
BERNSTEIN: How often did you get to wash?
LEBEDUN: Whenever we could get to the washroom. The washroom was one long room and there were about ten faucets, and when one opened the faucet full force, there was like a small thread of water coming out of every faucet, like a twine – that’s how much water came out. The facility where we went to relieve ourselves was called a latrine. And there was just a little hole, a trench, and a little piece of board on a couple of stumps of wood. And when they tipped over, and you fell in the hole, that was it!
BERNSTEIN: You fell in the latrines?
LEBEDUN: Yes, because they didn’t clean it too often. So people used to go around to relieve themselves wherever they could because you could die in the latrine, you could be pushed into the hole. And, oh God, the flies in the latrine. We were so glad when the first frost came. There were so many flies and so much rain and Polish lice. I never will forget the lice. We were so lousy. We didn’t even have to have a hair on our heads, and there were lice underneath our armpits or on our privates. And I was told in my old country that there is nothing worse than Hungarian and Polish lice. And I couldn’t understand why people make these kinds of comparisons but I didn’t realize how big the Polish lice were. They are water colored creatures and the more you kill them, the more they multiply because we were so dirty.
BERNSTEIN: Now, through that summer, you worked in the fields?
LEBEDUN: Through that summer I didn’t work in the fields.
BERNSTEIN: No, but most of the people worked in the fields and…
LEBEDUN: Yes, and I was a scribe again.
BERNSTEIN: In the fall is when you went to Birkenau?
BERNSTEIN: How did you find out you were going to Birkenau?
LEBEDUN: We were told we were going to Auschwitz-Birkenau and that it was a different type of a working camp.
BERNSTEIN: Did you know Selma was going with you then?
LEBEDUN: Yes, we knew that the whole camp was being dismantled because it was going to be used for other purposes. It was going to be an administrative building because there were going to be many other camps around Auschwitz proper.
BERNSTEIN: So you walked to Birkenau?
LEBEDUN: Yes. I think the distance was about 10 or 11 kilometers.
BERNSTEIN: This was in what month?
LEBEDUN: This was in September. I was in Auschwitz from April to September. Then we came to Birkenau and there was barbed wire again and high watch towers, three different sections of watch towers. There was a small circle around the camp, as far as the eye could see. Beyond that were fields and after that was the middle circle of watch towers. Far in the distance, which we couldn’t even see, was the bit Posten Katte (they used to call it). The security circle or perimeter is what it was. All we saw was the high watch towers and the guns aimed against the camp – machine guns, not just guns. We were wondering, “Why do they have to watch us so much? There is no place to go!” When we got sort of acclimated to the camp, we saw huge smokestacks being built – finished. When we arrived there, they were not completely finished.
One of my friends who was also from Slovakia, Katja, was chosen to be the main scribe for the camp in Auschwitz, and she was up with the SS in the front, behind the gate. She used to come in the evening and talk to me. And she said, “We’re going to get more transports, but we don’t have enough barracks. There are already 60,000 here in this one, and they’re going to reduce it, and I don’t know how.” I looked at her and said, “Katja, you know how they are going to reduce it? G.U., gas or die gas – gas sentence.” And she said, “Yes.” So we had to keep ourselves well because I’m a Jew and I’m going to be there too. And she said, “We are expecting a thousand political prisoners, Pollocks – Polish women, into the camp and they are going to live on the other side.” In the middle was a big bright street and on both sides were kind of deep moats. They were going to live on the other side of the moat, those Polish political prisoners. The Jews would be on one side and the Pollocks would be on the other side. They were expecting some from the Ukraine – “Oh-oh, the Germans are already in the Ukraine, so they are going to march to Russia.” That’s how we knew what was happening. So we were very scared and wondering what kind of selection they are going to have. And a couple of days later, Katja said, “There are too many lice in the camp. They ordered big vessels to be brought in and some kind of chemicals and we’re going to be dunked in, like a mikvah.” I looked at her and asked, “What’s a mikvah? Do you mean the mikvah like the very religious Jewish women are using?” She said yes and, “They’re going to take our clothing and put them through some kind of a chemical for cleansing because some of the SS is getting sick too, and some of them died already.” Typhoid fever – we had a terrible epidemic that fall – late fall and winter. And I still didn’t get it. A couple of my friends did and they died. (SIGHING) Anyway, that’s what the Germans did.
BERNSTEIN: What were you doing at this camp?
LEBEDUN: I was a scribe. My sister was working in a special commando with the girls who were going through the suitcases of the newcomers. The newcomers which came were told, as we were, that they were going to a working camp. So, they baked bread and put their jewels in the bread, and they put it in toothpaste and very wealthy people came because Hitler didn’t know any classes. The wealthy came with the poor and they brought all their worldly possessions. Some of the girls used to smuggle the jewelry into camp because they were cutting the bread, squeezing out the toothpaste and going through the jars of jelly or jello or preserves to look for jewels. And that commando was a very sought after commando because the girls were allowed to eat there what food they found. They could eat everything they wanted as long as they didn’t smuggle it into camp.
BERNSTEIN: So Selma was able to…
LEBEDUN: Yes. And sometimes they were searched – a lot of times for what they bring to camp. And we have to stand in roll call upon roll call and then we were punished. Because I was the scribe on the barrack at first where the commando was working – they called them rot Kopfchen because they had red kerchiefs on their heads. And I saw solid gold chains as long as from my throat to my knees. I could wrap around ten times. And we had a latrine in that block where I was a scribe, where this commando was marching out. There were 750 girls living in this huge barrack, ten in each koya, sleeping ten in each. But they knew I had brought soap in, or lotions. They could at least wash themselves in lotions. The commandant said, “Bring this lotion with you. I told them not to take the lotion from you. I don’t want to get sick and the SS working in this barrack don’t want to get sick.” So, I told him not to take the lotion away from me. And they were allowed to take one red with them every night. So when they put the lotion on and washed themselves, then they would throw it out. And I knew the SS started to think, “What are they bringing into the camp?” when we used to go on the three story koyas. They were a different type of sleeping than it was in Auschwitz proper which was like bunk beds. But this was like stalls; long, wide board stalls. They were a little sturdier than the bunk beds we had in Auschwitz proper, but it was a terrible way to sleep, ten in each. And whenever we found the girls where we were left in the camp in the barrack, so we used to always look the little straw or wood shavings they gave us to sleep on so they don’t find anything and we are not punished. We used to throw it in the latrine, the gold, diamonds, jewelry and everything that we found in the barrack because the commandant told us, “We know that the girls are filtzen (bringing in) things they find. When you find them, bring them up front to us.” And he said, “When you bring some in the front, bring everything you find. I will not punish you and you will not have to go on your knees for an hour or two, but if we find it, a lot of it, then you are going to be punished.” So, I brought some of it up front, but most of it we threw in the latrine.
BERNSTEIN: And did they keep their word about not punishing you?
LEBEDUN: Yes, sort of, sort of. Because they didn’t send it to Germany. Whatever I brought up front, they kept for themselves.
BERNSTEIN: And that was what you found in the shavings?
LEBEDUN: The girls found what was smuggled in sometimes in order to get something from the kitchen.
BERNSTEIN: But that was dangerous?
LEBEDUN: It was very dangerous but one took a chance. Hunger makes strange things out of people because when one is hungry, one’s body strength goes down. We were like walking skeletons, including me. And one was more prone to illness and death.
BERNSTEIN: Were you with your sister at this time?
LEBEDUN: I was with my sister but they still didn’t know that we were sisters. We were together in the same barrack for about one year.
BERNSTEIN: Did you go by different names?
LEBEDUN: I was married in the meantime and I had a different name. But we were no names, we were numbers. And we were very careful that nobody learn that we were sisters. There were several other sisters with us and nobody knew, or cousins. A couple of the girls managed. They were very young mothers and they had no little children and when they came on transports, they somehow smuggled them out. One of my very distant cousins had her mother with her to Auschwitz. Then they were sent to another camp and she wound up some place in another camp which was liberated by Russians.
BERNSTEIN: Both she and her mother?
LEBEDUN: And her mother. And her mother died a year after. She had bone marrow tuberculosis.
BERNSTEIN: While you were at Birkenau, were you a scribe the entire time?
LEBEDUN: Not the entire time. While I was a scribe on that barrack where the special work unit was housed, we had little lights in the ceiling – just a plain bulb in that whole long barrack – about six little lights for the evening. They were not for us so much as for the SS when they walked in for inspection to see if everything was quiet – you know, that nobody is milling around, if we don’t sleep on the floor. That was a laugh because it was so muddy nobody could sleep on it. I never had so much rain in my life like in that camp. We had no facilities to dry ourselves off, but as the girls started to become bolder, they used to bring panties, a pair of panties. We couldn’t wash them but at least we had a pair of panties. And as for bras, I didn’t have much boobies, so I gave my bra to somebody who really had big ones and problems with that. And my sister used to say, “You don’t have a bra. Who did you give it to?” I said, “I don’t have so much boobies and they don’t bother me. But I gave it to somebody who needed it more.”
BERNSTEIN: Your sister would smuggle it out?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And I used to tell her, “Don’t do that because if they catch you they will beat you and then they will shoot you.” And she said, “Don’t worry. We have to devise something. You know, out of need one must have survival devices.” One of the Polish girls, who was the head of the kitchen, came to me one day and by that time I spoke pretty good and understood Polish, and she said, “We’ve got to get together, you and I. I need toothpaste and I know that you and your girls can bring me toothpaste. I’ll give you an extra piece of bread if you let them bring me a toothpaste, or let them bring me a comb or a pair of panties or a bra. Or, I would like to have maybe a pair of stockings.” So, I looked at her and said, “Where are you going to wear your stockings?” “Oh, I would just like to put them on and have the feel of stockings. I was in jail for six months before I came here.” You know, political prisoners. So I said, “O.K., but how do I know that you will not betray me to the SS?” So she said, “Do you want me to do it in blood?” And I looked at her, “What do you mean in blood?” She said, “I’ll bring the kitchen knife and I’ll make a cut here on me and you and we rub them together.” And I said, “No, I don’t need that.” She said, “Oh, I forgot you Jews don’t like blood. No, I swear it to you on our most holy St. Mary that I will not betray you.” So, I said to my sister, “Do you think we should take a chance on her?” So my sister said, “Well, I don’t know, but if she swore to St. Mary and the Pollocks are very religious Catholics, maybe we should take a chance. O.K., I’ll bring you toothpaste. For toothpaste they won’t kill us so much.” So she brought me a tube of toothpaste and we made a sign to see each other. I passed her the toothpaste and she gave me a piece of bread and a piece of margarine because at that time we didn’t get margarine. The political prisoners got a piece of margarine.
So she said, “You know, I can be helpful to you in many other ways, my girls and I.” They were the cooks and they dished out the food. Then we had to bring it to the units out in field and pull it. It was heavy and in the mud with those bad fitting shoes, it was hard. She said, “I have connection with the underground and with the political prisoners in the men’s camp. And some of them work in the same place where your girls are working. And I can find out from them, maybe, when they will frisk them and when they will not. When it’s most likely that they are going to be frisked, I can let you know. And I can let you know when it is safe to bring things into the camp and when it is not safe. We have to make a signal.” And the signal was “safe,” it was “achtzehn – 18.” And 18 is a chai, achtzehn is safe. So, in the morning when the commandos marched out and I passed by the kitchen to report how many there are in the camp, how much food, how many portions are needed, she passed by and said, “Achtzehn.” So, when the girls marched out with the big vessels – they call them kessel – I said, “Tell the girls over there achtzehn. That’s all you have to say, achtzehn, that it’s safe.” Sometimes it backfired and all the girls who were living in that barrack, we were sometimes after roll call in the dark on our knees by the fence.
BERNSTEIN: Because they found some things on you?
LEBEDUN: Uh-hum.
BERNSTEIN: What did she tell you if it wasn’t safe? What was her signal?
LEBEDUN: If it wasn’t safe, there was no signal. But if it was safe, she said “achtzehn.” And if it was safe, I brought things in to give to them so they would give us more food. Maybe she gave us extra rations or maybe the girls could go into the kitchen after dark and other girls would give them a piece of bread for toothpaste. And some of the kapos got involved in it – the German kapos. And I said, “I don’t want to have a thing to do with them, and if you say who gave it to you, I will say that I know nothing about it.” Of course, I was a go-between. It became very complicated and my sister said, “Please, Hilda, stay away. You are going to get into trouble and I’ll never see you again. Please take care of yourself.” And a kapo said, “What do you mean that we will get in trouble? I told them that I have my private supply. You know, everybody in this camp, even the SS, organize. And this is a survival thing, not just for you or for us, but for the SS too. But I don’t want to get involved with the SS. There are just two of them which I am involved with. I won’t tell you who they are.” But then I found out who they were. One was in charge of the sauna where the newcomers came and which were allowed to go in camp. They were put under a shower – real water – not too much but enough. If we had enough water, sometimes I would walk myself into the sauna and I could shower a little bit, you see. Of course, that wasn’t for everybody.
But, you know, when I read about prisons, about what’s going on in prisons, I turned around one time and told my son Ronnie, “You know, Ronnie, I can identify with that because I lived through a similar circumstance.” Because, no matter how strict the security is in a prison, they still find knives and drugs, and the same things was true in the concentration camp. We organized things. I organized from the sick bay, where another friend of mine was. She was a doctor – she is a doctor – possibly she’s still alive. In the beginning she was first the doctor for the SS, you see. And then they had a revere because after the first visit of the Swiss Red Cross – they made them believe we were so well taken care of and they showed them the sick bay where we could go for first aid. The first aid they gave us was very inadequate because the little bandage they put on in the shoes wasn’t enough, and it dropped off and the shoes rubbed again. And with the next selection one was doomed when one had any kind of sore on one’s body.
BERNSTEIN: How often did they do selections?
LEBEDUN: The first big selection was after the winter of ’42. It was ’43 and it was in January when they said they were going to reduce the camp because we had many newcomers coming in and there were too many of us, and there were 60,000 people. And the first week after Christmas, we had snow and we had a roll call. And we had to take that little dress off and hide the panties when we were told to undress – the few of us who had panties – they couldn’t see we had them. And whoever had a little pimple went to the left – that was to death. And who was looking so pretty without pimple or sore went to the right. And in the meantime I got my mother-in-law with my two sisters-in-law in, and they went with that first selection.
They came to the camp and I saw them, and I couldn’t save them. I wouldn’t be able to save my own mother.
Then after the first selection we were out between the second and third perimeter of the security watch towers – the huge low round opening. There was no place to run. The snow was about…

Tape 3 - Side 2 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: How was it for you when you saw your mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law come out?
LEBEDUN: Oh, it was terrible, just terrible. You see, when they took my – my mother-in-law was older, much older than my mother – and they didn’t want to take the old, old people, the older people the first wave, the younger ones they took. If they would have known my parents age, they wouldn’t have taken them because they looked so young. And when they came, it was about the 10th transport and my two sisters-in-law didn’t want to leave without their mother. And they were back in the camp in Zilina, and in between times – between the fall of ’42 and the spring of ’43, they were trying desperately to build up more camp and housing facilities for more people. And when I left, I found out later, my sisters-in-law and my mother-in-law moved from the town for the south, to southern Slovakia, and that’s why they got to them a little later. When they came in, and I was on the ramp – we who were there already – we had to do duty at the ramp and I saw them coming down and I said to myself, “Oh my God, I cannot make as though I know them, that they are family,” because there were SS around. But when they were pushed over and the selection was over as to who goes left and who goes right and they were on the side where we were, I went from the back and I squeezed their hands and I said, “Don’t act like we are related but just that you know me. Oh my God, where did they get you from?” So then she said to me very sadly, “In southern Slovakia and neither one wanted to leave me.”
BERNSTEIN: So they would have taken the daughters but not the mother?
LEBEDUN: First, yes. But they did not have enough room, as much as they wanted to exterminate the people, and they were very cautious not to let the rest of the world know that we are going to vernichtung, to annihilation, that this is not just a working camp but that it’s an annihilation camp, you know.
BERNSTEIN: They made it through the first selection?
LEBEDUN: Yes, when they got to the ramp from the train, but over the winter I used to smuggle charcoal and aspirin – aspirin was world known under a different name, but Ina (the doctor), when she saw me after the roll call at dusk, she said, “You know, someday you are going to be shot.” I was careful. I would say, “I need…,” and she would say, “Yes, I know what you need. You need pills and charcoal, and what else?”
BERNSTEIN: What was charcoal for?
LEBEDUN: Charcoal was for the dysentery. God, the dysentery we got. After the initial typhoid fever, then we got stomach type typhoid and that’s dysentery. Then one went to the bathroom with blood and that was the most debilitating one.
BERNSTEIN: Was there another selection after this?
LEBEDUN: Oh, yes. The first selection was, as I started to say before, in the snow. But they had many places to get them together besides Zilina, we found out then. And they had to transport them. They couldn’t keep them there, and there was no place to take them into. Auschwitz-Birkenau was small. They built more camps. They built Treblinka, they built Buna Vercke, and some other camps behind the barbed wires around where we were in Birkenau, and the whole thing was called Auschwitz-Birkenau.
And no sooner did they have a barrack ready, then the newcomers came. They shipped thousands and thousands. And after the first selection, they were taken. And I saw them in – they put them in trucks and the crematoria, the room where they were gassed, was built in such a mad fashion that the windows were like chutes. They opened the back of the truck and they were just pushed down through that chute into that big room that looked like a sauna, a shower – with several heads of shower. And when they had so many people coming in and coming in, and they didn’t have that zyklon 11 or 12 was the gas they used. Then, you know, the body gets unconscious and a lot of live people they used to shove in the ovens. And they were found out later that there was a man and a woman and a child – they put them on those big shovels which were operated by gas and the shovel pushed them in the oven, into the flames.
BERNSTEIN: After they were gassed?
LEBEDUN: After they were sort of gassed, but they were not dead. And that’s when I thanked God that when my mother and my two brothers and all the others – in the beginning it looked like a huge room where there were showers and there was enough gas that it took about 10 minutes and one suffocated.
BERNSTEIN: They used gas and then put them in the oven? But they didn’t have enough gas?
LEBEDUN: They didn’t have enough gas later on. Then that wasn’t enough. The huge crematoria were not enough. Then they built trenches and they used to take the ones which were sort of half-gassed. They were like on a platform, and they raised the platform up to the roof and tilted the platform and they got back into the trucks and the trucks opened the back gate and they were pushed down into the flames into the trenches. And that’s when we heard them – the screams because a body which is unconscious, for whatever reason, when one is put in flames, in heat, it comes through. I saw the crematoria. I begged, you know. I had to see it for myself. And I saw the very religious Jews, the men in tefillin and tallit standing there and praying, waiting for their next to be gassed. And sometimes I started losing faith after I saw that. (CRYING) What did we do so terribly bad that He is punishing us so much? And they were standing there and praying. And the little children were holding them by their trousers and the mothers. I cannot pinpoint when I started to have faith again.
And the crematoria flames could be seen in the distance, and one could see the smoke. It was a kind of funny smoke, kind of a pale gray type of smoke, not too pale but kind of irridescent when the sun shown through it. And we used to stand there and look at those flames and smoke, and sometimes I imagined I saw outlines and faces, “That’s my mother’s face and that’s my brother’s face. That’s the face I saw on the ramp, and in the smoke the same thing.” (CRYING)
And then later on, towards the fall of ’43, they used to bayonet the little kids, the Jewish kids who came. You know, the SS used to laugh at their wriggling and screaming. (SOBBING) They did this in front of us – they didn’t care anymore.
BERNSTEIN: They would shoot the little kids?
LEBEDUN: No, they would stick a bayonet through them. They said, “There is another Jew dying.”
BERNSTEIN: And a bayonet was like a knife?
LEBEDUN: A knife. On the gun they had bayonets. I saw them do it.
BERNSTEIN: When you were at Birkenau – you were there from September of ’42 till about September of ’44?
LEBEDUN: I was there until about November of ’44, I think – either October or November. Time had no meaning to us.
BERNSTEIN: What other jobs did you have?
LEBEDUN: I was also for a while in charge of the barrack because the one who was in charge of the barrack got sick and died, and I had 300 political prisoners in that same work unit as the 400 – 350 because there were 750 when we got more political prisoners. They were still on the – they call it “the good side, not the Jewish side.” Aryan are the Germans, you know, the better race. And because the commandant who was in charge of the commando, the special commando, the girls who were working with the newcomers’ luggage and sorting the clothes. Some of them the SS took, some of them went to Germany, and then some of them went to us, and they didn’t have enough uniforms, the striped ones, so we just got a dress. If it was thin or short or long, it didn’t matter – a dress. But the better ones they packed and sent to Germany. And when the new political prisoners used to come and we were still on the Aryan side, because we Jews were non-people.
My commando was on the other side and on that side was also the sick bay and a couple of immediate officers for the Germans. I got 300 political prisoners – women – hard core women. They took less of the Jews. They reduced the Jews from 750 to 400 and got 300 Polish girls working in the same commando. They thought these girls would tell on the Jews how much the Jews smuggle in, but they quickly learned to smuggle even more than the Jews did because they were already by that time in prison and they knew more about survival than we did. And somehow they liked me because I tried to be fair and make no differences. I told them when I saw the Polish woman’s beating on one of my girls, I said, “Why are you hitting her? You know, when we die, you’re going to die the same way we are. She didn’t do anything to you.” The woman said, “She stepped on my foot and she doesn’t have to step on my foot, that dirty Jew.” And I said, “Oh yeah, and what are you?” Oh, I used to be so mad at them. I said, “You believe in Jesus Christ, and you pray every night and your prized possession is a found rosary, that you can say your prayers? Jesus didn’t want you to be a hypocrite. She has a soul just like you, and you have a soul just as she. We are in the same mess together and if we don’t watch out for one another, we’re never going to get out of it.”
BERNSTEIN: What did your job as head of the barracks entail? What did you have to do?
LEBEDUN: To see that everybody marched out to work, to see that the scribe gave the right report, to see that my barrack was clean – clean – we finally got shovels to shovel the dirt into buckets and we used to take them behind the latrines and empty them. It was forever raining there and snowing that winter. In summer there was the worst place around Auschwitz, there were just swamps where they put us and it was just a terrible place. They knew why they were putting us there. They knew that if they didn’t kill us, the weather and the illness would kill us. And we were hard between one another because many years before I was told that suffering and deprivation show the character of a human. And I finally saw what hunger can do to people. I saw when they brought mothers there with daughters. They didn’t separate them anymore. And I saw a mother stealing bread from her daughter. I said, “My God, how can you do that? I just saw you taking the piece of bread your daughter had.” Her reply, “I want to live too.” I said, “What kind of mother are you?” I saw humanity there I never thought existed. I said to my sister, “If that would be our mother, she would have starved to death, we would have had the food.” And she looked at me and she said, “What do you know? You come from a beautiful home and you were not in a ghetto like I was. I want to live too.”
BERNSTEIN: These were political prisoners?
LEBEDUN: No, these were Jewish people – Jewish people, supposedly very religious people from Poland who went through misery in the ghettos. I never could understand, up to this day, that sometimes what this type of deprivation can do to a human being.
BERNSTEIN: Did your sister’s job change?
LEBEDUN: No, she had the same job the whole time. She fell in the shower over there – they even put showers there – and broke her collar bone, and the commandant who was in charge of them took her to the sick bay and they had it set and put in a sling. And he marched in because he hated the commander in our camp because he said, “They don’t give you enough water to shower and you stink.” He used to say that in the beginning. “I have to do something about it. I don’t want to get sick and my SS people don’t want to get sick working with you who stink so much and have so many lice.” So he had there facilities to delouse them and he had showers built, they could shower. And he saw that there was soap and clothing to change. “Change to whatever you want to change to, but don’t take the very silky flimsy stuff because they will fight with me about it,” he said. But he came in on his motorcycle and I was standing there expecting my commando and my commando is not there and I said, “Oh my God, what happened?” And I saw somebody on a motorcycle and they were talking and talking. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and my sister was always in the front row, marching the first ten in the front row. And I saw that her sleeve is hanging down and her arm didn’t bend right. I heard him say, “Sieg Heil” and then he went back on his motorcycle. So we had to stand roll call there by the gate because they came so late and I was just looking at my sister and she said, “Don’t worry.”
When we were allowed to disband and dismantle, I said, “What happened?” She said, “I fell and broke my collar bone and he had it set. And I told him that I was finished and to kill me now. You have the gun, shoot me, because they will send me to the gas chambers.” And he said, “No they won’t. You are a good worker and you sing me pretty German songs and you have a good voice. I won’t let you die, not yet,” he said. “I’ll go with you. I will have it set and I will dare if they take you out, and I will see that you come back tomorrow morning. If you don’t come back tomorrow morning, I will go to Hitler himself. I hate those people over there!”
BERNSTEIN: So he protected her?
LEBEDUN: He protected her. And her collar bone healed wrong and when we got to Sweden, they wanted to rebreak it and reset it, but my sister said it didn’t bother her and she wouldn’t wear off-the-shoulder dresses. But he saved her life. You see, it was just meant to be.
BERNSTEIN: So, what happened? You were there until November of 1944. Another thing – you said you got sick with typhoid when you were there.
LEBEDUN: Oh, but my sister was not sick and it was so terrible, and she finally ran across one evening, and she told Ina, the doctor, “Hilda is sick. I think she has typhoid. She had a high fever.” Ina asked if she could bring me over by smuggling me in between the Polish girls. So, I was in the sick bay in between the Polish girls and she was pushing into me all kind of pills. I don’t even know what. And my fever was so high that I had no saliva in my mouth and she was coming specially to give me water. And you couldn’t see my teeth. The saliva was black and all caked on. My sister used to come after work and talk to me and shake me, “Hilda, Hilda.” And I was calling, “Selma, Selma, mother, mother,” and other names. And she said, “It’s me, I’m here, I’m here. I’m holding you. I kissed you. I am shaking you because you didn’t recognize me.” I was just calling and screaming so much. And Ina told me later on that she gave me some kind of a shot to calm me down so they wouldn’t shoot me because when they came for inspection every day, anyone who was still very sick, even the Polish political prisoners, went into the gas chambers.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take you to get over the typhoid?
LEBEDUN: Oh, I don’t remember. I was in the revere (that’s what sick bay was called) two weeks, I think. And I got better, little by little, thanks to her (Ina, the doctor), because she gave me all kinds of pills and things. And before I was discharged, there was a selection on the Polish sick bay. I was on the bottom of the triple decker and I was feeling a little better and was more coherent. I couldn’t stand up or walk because I completely lost my equilibrium. And I remember my sister smuggled in a pair of men’s pajamas, small ones with pockets. And she told me I had to get up during the day when it was safe and, “Stick your hands in your pockets and try to walk. Suppose there is a selection and they tell you to walk out of here, then what’s going to happen with me? I’m going to put myself into the sick bay and be a part of the next batch.”
So, I tried to walk and I couldn’t. I fell down, I picked myself up and I held on to the sides and I stuck my hands in the pockets and it was hard to get my equilibrium back. One morning Ina came in and asked, “Hilda, are you listening to me?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “There is going to be a selection, but you don’t have to walk out. I want you to leave right now, up to the very back part of this room. I cannot help you because I have to run out. Get yourself up to the very top by yourself. Don’t ask me how you are going to do it. You have got to do it because that’s the place he’s not going to look too much, Mengele.”
I don’t know how I got up there because nobody was there to help me. They were still standing roll calls. I got myself up there by myself and I was just lying there and he came with the riding stick, “Who is up there? Show me your face.” And I moved over. And he said to her, “How long is she here?” And she said, “Oh, just a couple of days.” He said, “Just a couple of days, I’ll give her a couple of more but if she’s not out of here, she goes.” And I heard that. I was lucky because they took a couple other girls who were there. “Show me your face – she goes!” And they came and dragged her out and she was gone. And she was a Polish political prisoner.
BERNSTEIN: And you had been there longer than a couple of days?
LEBEDUN: Yes, thanks to Ina – she hid me. I wouldn’t get down from that third bed after the danger was over, but I got up there, I don’t know how. I was still there and after a long time Ina came and said, “Hilda, where are you?” I said, “I’m up here and I cannot get down. I tried but I get so dizzy, I’m going to fall. I’m afraid.” She said, “Yah, I know.” So she helped me down.
About two days later I was kind of toddling around and I was trying to get – then someone brought me a pajama bottom, a little different, but she put it on me and some kind of slippers she brought me. And Ina said, “You’ve got to go out of the barrack so you can get some color,” when my fever left, “because I won’t be able to keep you here too long. I can put you in another barrack where somebody will hide you for a while, but that’s all I can do. You have to start walking.”
One afternoon when there was a sunny day, I was sitting outside in the sun and somebody said, “Danger, danger, danger. The SS is going through the camp.” There was no place to go. I could not go back to the barrack because it was far away. There was only one place – to the latrine. And there was a plank, not very wide to walk on. And I thought, “Oh my God, if I can get to the latrine, I’m safe, but how am I going to get over that plank? I haven’t done that yet.” But you see, in danger again, I got myself to that plank, got myself into the latrine and there were lots of other people there. And he came and peeked in, “Anybody sick here?” “No, no, nein.” So he left saying, “Verstunkene, miserable versauten Juden.” Miserable, stinking, lousy Jews. “Verdammen,” damned. One time he said, after the selection (the very first time, as a matter of fact). In that snow we were naked and shivering, and there we were standing, those of us who were living, and others were already in trucks and crying and screaming and some of the men recognized their mothers, their wives, their daughters, screaming and crying. “Mach schnell, mach schnell (move, move, move; quick, quick, quick).” And he stands there and says to the commandant, Mengele says, “Isn’t that beautiful? Where is their God damned Jewish God while we are killing them like this? Where is that verflucht Juden God? Where is that verflucht Juden God now?”
BERNSTEIN: What does mean?
LEBEDUN: The verflucht Juden God means their damned Jewish God. I heard it – I was in the first row. I always was in the first row because we Slovakian girls were always in the first row. We lost some that time.
And we came back to the camp. We trotted through that snow and mud and we were crying and screaming…

Tape 4 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

…and on that occasion, with the first selection, I was doubly tattooed. The first tattoo was very light and the dots were very far apart. And the second time around, he grabbed my hand and said, “I can hardly see it.” And he pushed me aside. “Tattoo her one more time.” There were tattooers there. And you can see (SHOWS HER ARM TO INTERVIEWER) that it’s twice tattooed. And then he said, “I tried to go in the same place so you don’t get an infection. If you can get some disinfectant, put it on because I don’t think you are too clean from what I see.”
BERNSTEIN: This was where?
LEBEDUN: It was in Auschwitz-Birkenau after that first selection. Several of us were tattooed twice because the first number wasn’t too noticeable, according to them.
BERNSTEIN: You couldn’t stop crying that night?
LEBEDUN: I couldn’t stop crying that evening, all of us in the barrack, and from all the barracks because of the big selection and we saw what was happening, that they are going to the crematorias and that was the first time we knew they were going to the crematorias, never to return. And some of them were still okay except they had a boil or a wound. This was in the fall of 1942. And the whole camp was just crying, and the SS didn’t know what to do. And finally they came and they said, “We’re going to start shooting if you don’t stop crying. We will start shooting right into the barrack and we don’t care who we kill.” So then all of the people who were in charge of the barracks, they called them up front and all the scribes and all the girls who were cleaning the barracks. They told us, “You’d better calm your people down and have them stop crying before we earnestly start to take machine guns and shoot as long as there is a noise.” Then Katja started to talk to us after they left and said, “See, we’d better stop crying because they are going to do it, I know they are going to do it. It will give them great pleasure to open the machine guns to the opening of the barracks and shoot.” So, we went back to the barracks and said, “Well, we just have to see that they calm down. We cannot cry. If we have to cry, just sob in your hand. Cover your mouth and don’t scream so loud.” So the SS man came and said, “You are still not quiet? You are praying to that damned Jewish God? Is he going to save you when I open this machine gun and start shooting? Verflucht verdaten Juden God.” (SOBBING)
A couple of months later, after the first selection, we got a transport from Poland, from some kind of a lesser ghetto and one of them was a rabbi’s wife, and I happened to hear, “God it is the time when they came to their end.” And I saw that she was well dressed and had kind of grayish hair and she was standing there with her two daughters next to her. And I went closer and I said to her, “Verschahan sie mich in Deutsch? (Do you understand me in German?)” And she said, “Yah, you don’t speak Yiddish?” I said, “No.” And she asked where I was from. You see, she was looking at me while I was looking at her. I glanced around and said, “Make believe that I am not talking to you when we converse,” and I told her where I was from. And she said, “My God, you are from Slovakia. You must have been the first here. How come you are still alive?” I said, “I don’t know, but do you have any cyanide on you – any poison you can give me?” She said, “Now wait a minute, don’t get so down. I am not going to die right now. I’ll see you later. My name is Broche.” So I had to move away from her and when she came through with her daughters, I didn’t really see the selection because my time was up and I had moved back to camp and some other one took my place. And after the roll call, this brave soul always went traipsing around (SOBBING) and I went from barrack to barrack and I found out where they put them in three different barracks. There was a huge transport that day and about 7000 people came. I finally found her and she said, “See, I told you. My Jewish God saved me and my daughters. My time isn’t up yet,” she said. And I said, “I know the one who is your blockalteste (the woman in charge of barrack). She is a friend of mine from Slovakia. Would you like to be transferred to my barrack?” she said, “No, I want to just be with my girls. I might need your help later, you see.” And I said, “What do you mean?” She replied, “I don’t know, something just tells me that I am safe right now where I am.” So I went to the girl and I told her, “Can you keep this woman, she is a rabbi’s wife, for your stubendienst (you know, the one who cleans the barrack)?” She said, “Hilda, if she can work, I will keep her. You know there is work to be done.” So I said, “Well, let me talk to her.” So I talked to her and she said, “Well, I can try.” And she really tried to work hard. She wasn’t used to heavy work – her husband was a very big rabbi in Lvov, some place in a Polish city, Lvov, and she had maids, but she tried and worked, and we put the girls in a little better commando from the girl who was in charge of that.
And I had long discussions with her. She told me that when they came to get them, they marched her two sons and her husband out of the house first and were pulling them by their side locks and hitting them and blood started spurting but they were making jokes about it and kicking them. And then the commandant said, “Oh, this is the chief rabbi. Let’s have some more fun.” And they got the Jewish community in the middle of the city and all the population could watch what they did to the chief rabbi and his two sons, (SOBBING) how they tortured them to death, and she and her two daughters saw it. And she told me, “I will not come out of this alive, but there is hope for my daughters. They saw a lot and they are strong.”
BERNSTEIN: Do you know what happened to them?
LEBEDUN: I’m not sure if they were saved, but there were transports going from Auschwitz and I managed to put them on a pretty good transport. I don’t know if they survived or not, but she (their mother) wasn’t alive anymore when I put them on a transport. She had told me, ‘See that you get my girls on a better transport.” She got sick and I gave her all kind of things I could, but she died. (CRYING) She said, “Promise me one thing, don’t let me go alive to Block 25.” That was the block where they used to take the ones who were very ill before they put them in the trucks to the crematorium.
BERNSTEIN: She wanted to die before she got there?
LEBEDUN: Yes. They called it heaven commando – commando to heaven.
And my aunt came in between, my uncle’s wife. And she had no will to live. I kept her on my barrack for over a month. Then she became ill with dysentery and she died, but I kept her hidden in the barrack all night but I knew she was dead before I took her to Block 25.
In the rain, when one wanted to go to the latrine or somewhere out of the barrack to relieve oneself, when one fell in that mud and when one was sick, one never could get out of that mud. And in the morning, you didn’t know if you were seeing a clump of mud or a human dead in the mud unless there was a piece of clothing sticking out. (CRIES THROUGHOUT ACCOUNT) There were lots of people trampled over. We used to hunt between roll calls when one was missing, “A terrible thing happened. One is missing.” And I told one of the SS men from Sudetenland, which belonged to Czechoslovakia before, and I used to talk Czech with him. And he saved my life once when I was up front, going with a report and they pulled me in for the experiments. I told them, “I am a blockalteste and I am coming with a report.” They said, “You look good, we need you.” I was there a year and a half when it happened in Auschwitz. Through all the sickness and all the selection, suddenly I am standing there and he came by and went to the front gate for something.
BERNSTEIN: This was who?
LEBEDUN: The SS man who was in charge of my barrack. And he said to me, “Was machst du hier?” (Hilda, what are you doing here?) And I said, “I came with a report and they pulled me in here.” And he said, “Oh yah, run! Run harder than you have ever run before!” And I started running because there were newcomers. They used to take newcomers from the ramp, the nice looking ones, straight to Auschwitz proper for experiments. And after a long time, he came back and said, “I know you are back safe. You know what it was? Experiments in Auschwitz.” I said, “Well, what could I do? I told them who I was. They saw my red stripe but one of the SS men said I looked good and they needed me.” So, he said, “I don’t know why I went up front.”
BERNSTEIN: This is March 27. I am having my third interview with Hilda Lebedun.
The last time we were talking about Auschwitz and the experiences you had there. Is there anything you want to add that you might have remembered after we talked?
LEBEDUN: It’s very difficult to talk about Auschwitz. What my eyes saw and my soul felt cannot be put into words. Things are so hard to put in perspective to make other people understand or somehow be able to empathize with the things we had to live through and the things which are impossible to make other people understand because there are no words to express the misery and the anguish and the hopelessness and helplessness of our situation; the constant stress, “What’s going to happen to us tomorrow? If there will be a tomorrow? The dehumanization of a human, the uncanny ways they made us feel that we are useless and worthless it’s just impossible to even focus on any certain segment of our lives there, how we were able to function, how some of us were not able to function, how some of us got crazy and ran to the barbed wire and committed suicide with one finger – that’s how strong the voltage was in the barbed wires.
And the general mood in the camps, not just in Birkenau, but in the surrounding camps. We could see the men’s camp and we could see that they were treated worse than we because they were beaten more. They looked worse. We saw newcomers who sometimes used to come to use our saunas, washrooms. When there were too many on the men’s side, they brought them to our side. And how terribly we felt when we saw our own Jewish men – it was at quite a distance, but we would holler across. They didn’t like it. They said we should be quiet, but we still hollered. “How is the situation outside?” And they were naked and we felt so ashamed, like when we had to undress and there were men across. The SS didn’t bother us any more because we developed a barrier – they are the enemies, and we are not going to feel bad. But when we saw Jewish men in the distance and we were naked, I cannot describe to you how we felt. It was a difficult psychological feeling. And when they were naked, we sort of didn’t want to look at them too much. And it’s a paradox of a situation which so many books were written about and not even one is able to completely bring the life and the death, living in concentration camps, in to a real deep focus.
BERNSTEIN: Looking back on it now, did you have any survival devices that helped you make it through?
LEBEDUN: The survival feelings and devices which we developed were individual. It’s very hard to say any one thing which made me, for instance, survive. As I mentioned before, I promised my mother, no matter what, I am going to live and I should pray to God and I should say Sh’ma, and I should trust that He will help me. There was this element of faith and a little bit of luck, I think, as I reflect on the years, over three, in Auschwitz. Why I am alive, I still cannot explain in a way which makes sense. There were others who were much stronger, much taller and they didn’t survive. What makes one have a different way of coping than another? It’s sometimes a mystery when a situation becomes so unbearable that one loses everything. One loses one’s ability to think, to feel. One has to block out some deep feelings for others so much because of the atrocities one has seen. It would rob a person of his sanity. So one has to try to block off part of the external feelings. I wouldn’t say I blocked it completely off because I tried to do what my mother said I should do. If I am in a position to help, then God would be with me, and He was. So many times I was punished because I was helping. My sister used to march out with the commando she belonged to and she hugged me and kissed me when they didn’t see it – the SS couldn’t see. And they didn’t know we were related. And she’d say, “Oh, I hope I’ll see you tonight. Don’t do anything. You endanger your life every day.”
And it was very difficult and it’s very difficult for me to rationalize in many ways. The things we devised to survive, like when the girls smuggled in things, “I got another piece of bread.” And there were five of us. We all pooled our rations and we ate just one. We didn’t know – maybe the next day we wouldn’t get any, which was even more prevalent when we were on the marches, away from Auschwitz, when we had to flee Auschwitz. Well, we didn’t flee Auschwitz, when I got smuggled from Auschwitz because I would have never survived Auschwitz. I was a Strafe Haftling, which means I was punished and I had a big red point on the back and on the front of me.
BERNSTEIN: You said you never would have survived Auschwitz?
LEBEDUN: I never would have survived. If I physically survived, they wouldn’t have let me live – they wouldn’t. Even if the Russians were within 10 kilometers, they would have killed me.
BERNSTEIN: If you had gotten out of the camp – is that what you’re saying?
LEBEDUN: No. Even before I got out of the camp. Even if I would physically survive, they wouldn’t let me live. I was a punished prisoner.
BERNSTEIN: So what does that mean – a punished prisoner?
LEBEDUN: Do you remember when I told you that they beat me and I wouldn’t say anything about how they were smuggling things in and the girls were smuggling for the underground ammunition when they were working in the ammunition factories? And one of the girls was a traitor. Her mother was Polish, her father was Jewish, and she hated all the Jews. She hated because she got into a concentration camp because the Germans didn’t make distinction if one is half and half. They beat me because I wouldn’t say that the girls were smuggling it in and throwing it in the latrine and all those kinds of things. And they held a gun to my chest and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t tell the truth, because they knew the truth. I said, “I don’t know what kind of truth you are talking about because I don’t know anything. So shoot!” And they didn’t shoot and they couldn’t understand that a sau Jude and a woman could have so much strength, not to cry. Sau Jude means dirty, infested, Jewish scum.
BERNSTEIN: But he didn’t shoot.
LEBEDUN: He didn’t shoot.
BERNSTEIN: You said there was a red badge on you?
LEBEDUN: A red, big round one.
BERNSTEIN: And how long did you have that?
LEBEDUN: I had it even the time when they helped me smuggle myself out of Auschwitz to Telefunken when they came to select people to work in the ammunition factory.
BERNSTEIN: So was it for a year, two years?
LEBEDUN: It was about four months.
BERNSTEIN: And you had a badge on you. How did you get the badge on you?
LEBEDUN: Because I wouldn’t tell. I wasn’t a squealer. Of course, they laughed when somebody squealed, but they hated a squealer.
BERNSTEIN: So they put a badge on you and what did that mean?
LEBEDUN: That meant that they watched me all the time.
BERNSTEIN: Were there other incidents of your being punished?
LEBEDUN: When I went to the barrack where they had shoes and I was smuggling shoes from the barrack to the people who didn’t march out and who were left in the camp even when they were able. They didn’t have shoes. They couldn’t march out and they went to gas chambers. I didn’t tell them when the girls were smuggling in gold and diamonds and jewelry, and when I found them in the places where we slept. The straw wasn’t enough and I don’t know why they smuggled that in. I know why they smuggled that in – to go at night to the kitchen which wasn’t too far and give the Polish girls a trinket for extra food. And I knew they were going to come and make us rummage through the places where we slept, 10 to a little space. We found it and I threw it into the latrine and they couldn’t understand why, when we ordered the latrine to be cleaned because we were separated from the others by a high fence wall. I mentioned to you that the girls were working with the SS to sort the clothing of the newcomers…
BERNSTEIN: That was where your sister was.
LEBEDUN: Yes. The good clothing went to Germany and the tattered ones we were wearing then. And they said, “How come they don’t come and clean the latrine in the back, the one huge latrine, as fast as when they come to my barrack?” Because the underground got the gold and diamonds – huge diamonds. I guess I’ll never see diamonds in my life like I saw there. Some Jews were very wealthy. And gold chains as big as my wrist, big, little, baked in bread, put in jellies and then they had to open it. And when they smuggled it in and I found it, I threw it in the latrine because they would have been punished if the Germans had found it.
BERNSTEIN: So this was called a schtraf haftling?
LEBEDUN: Schtraf means punishment. It’s a punished prisoner.
BERNSTEIN: So you were saying that they would never have let you live because you…
LEBEDUN: Because I knew too much. I was among the first ones and I survived physically, and I knew what was going on in the camps. I knew of the system in which Mengele was making the experiments. I witnessed what their experiments did. They took two of my girls. Somehow they were allowed to be home for a day because this commando was a privileged commando. They got enough food and they could shower everyday there, and so they had a better chance of survival. When they had a blister on their foot or something, they were allowed to go to the sick bay and stay a day in camp. And they were coming from the sick bay back to the barrack when they were caught, like I was that time, and taken for experiments to Auschwitz proper. And the commandant who was in charge of this commando protested.
BERNSTEIN: Why do you think they punished you and let you live instead of sending you to…
LEBEDUN: That time when I was beaten, etc.? I guess they couldn’t understand why a Jewish woman has so much strength and would not cry out when being beaten. I don’t know.
BERNSTEIN: You don’t have any ideas?
LEBEDUN: I don’t know. He looked at the other and the third one and he said, “How is it possible that this sau Jude, and a woman on top of it, is not crying?” He hit me in the face, you know, hard. And I didn’t cry. I pressed my teeth together when I knew I was going to go for interrogation. Not to cry, if I can help it, that I might save my life. And when they were asked questions, “Answer me a full sentence and not just yes and no.” I cried afterwards when they told me to leave and I was in a different room.

Tape 4 - Side 2 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: But you did not cry when you were being interrogated?
BERNSTEIN: You were a powerful person there. I want to know how you got the power.
LEBEDUN: I wasn’t a powerful person.
BERNSTEIN: Powerful in terms of a couple of times you mentioned that you got somebody on a good transport. How did you do that?
LEBEDUN: I had friends because most of the people – because most of the people who worked inside the camp were from Slovakia. They were really the only survivors from the very beginning. Like the main scribe in the camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau was Katja, and she was from Slovakia. And some of those in charge of the barrack, which was a horrible position – they were elected by the SS – they just felt that we survived and we survived the selections and we survived physically, they put us in charge of the barrack. I didn’t become right away in charge of the barrack. I was a scribe. I spoke good German and so they could converse with me in German. When they asked questions, I answered in German. They did not like to hear Yiddish because they felt it defied and flawed the beautiful German language. They used to say, “Die verfluchte Hunde,” the damned dogs, what they did to our beautiful language. When somebody answered in Yiddish and it was after the roll call, they were caught going to the latrine or going to another barrack. They would say, “What are you doing here?” If they said, “I’m going to the latrine,” the soldiers would holler, “Run,” or “Get lost.” But when they started to explain in Yiddish, they were doomed. They were beated and maybe shot, and they didn’t care if they didn’t shoot you dead, you know. It was just to inflict misery. So I used to tell my girls, “If they catch you, just say, ‘I am going to the latrine.’ Can you say, ‘Ich gehe zu die latrine?’ Don’t tell anything else. If they ask you any questions, just keep on repeating that you are going to the latrine, because once you start in Yiddish, you know what will happen to you.”
So sometimes they got frightened and they answered when they were asked, “What are you doing here? You know you are not supposed to be here, etc.” And when they started talking in Yiddish, it was a doom.
BERNSTEIN: Well, now the daughters of the chief rabbi, you said, “I got them on a good transport.”
LEBEDUN: I went to Katja and I said, “You know, they are still healthy – they got typhoid fever, but they got over it – can you ship them with this next transport I heard about that is going to Bergen-Belsen?” She said, “Well, we’ll see. We’ll take some from your barracks. Bring them up front. See the chief scribe.” She was with the SS when they were picking out people to go to the transport. (SIGHING) It wasn’t always possible, but sometimes.
BERNSTEIN: How did you know it was going to be better at Bergen-Belsen?
LEBEDUN: Better than Auschwitz, we heard, because Auschwitz was known as a Vernichtung lager (annihilation camp). Whoever came to Auschwitz would not come out alive under any circumstances. We couldn’t get ourselves out so easy but we tried to help others.
BERNSTEIN: Couldn’t that same girl have gotten you on that transport or were you too valuable at that time?
LEBEDUN: I wasn’t valuable but I wasn’t allowed to go out.
BERNSTEIN: Because you had the red badge on?
LEBEDUN: Not only that I had the red badge, but because we were working in that camp and we were not allowed to leave.
BERNSTEIN: But the people who weren’t working…?
LEBEDUN: The people who were not working we could more easily smuggle through.
BERNSTEIN: So, you’re thinking that the power you got was from being there so long and knowing lots of people.
LEBEDUN: Knowing lots of people which were able – not the Germans, but the kapos, the German kapos, like a foreman, and the Polish kapos. And the girls who were working with this type of thing, who were writing down the numbers of the prisoners. You see, the Germans are very meticulous. They kept beautiful records which helped even up to this day.
BERNSTEIN: I have a question about the selection process and how people reacted during it.
LEBEDUN: Oh, it was terrible. We were frightened, we were scared. On what basis would they select? “I have a pimple, I have a sore on my back, and they’ll turn me around and see it. Then I will die. How will we die?” Because we knew there was not enough gas anymore. “Will we be half alive in the crematorium or in the pits which were there?”
BERNSTEIN: How often did they have selections?
LEBEDUN: It depended upon the circumstances in the camp, the physical circumstances. If there was a lot of illness, sickness, then they had selections more often. If there were too many in the camp, like when we were 40,000, they reduced it by half. Food was hard to get, such as we got there – the rotten food. So they reduced the population.
BERNSTEIN: And they just kicked people out of the line?
LEBEDUN: No, we were naked and we had to march in front of Mengele and the others naked. And he just picked, not only because one was too skinny or one was too ugly. Maybe to him, one was uglier than another. We were not beauties to look at, you know.
BERNSTEIN: And if he did not pick you, then you knew you were O.K.?
LEBEDUN: If he said, “Go to the left,” or sometimes, “Go to the right,” we knew that we were O.K.
BERNSTEIN: How did you know which was the right way?
LEBEDUN: We knew because when he said, “Turn around,” we each had to march in front of him at a distance of his riding stick – he was dressed in a riding outfit.
BERNSTEIN: You stood as far apart as his riding stick?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And, “Turn around, turn around,” and he motioned to the right. His right was to our left. And we knew that we were safe.
BERNSTEIN: What was the reaction of someone who got motioned to the left?
LEBEDUN: We couldn’t scream. We couldn’t show any emotion. But when they were taken away, then there were cries and screams. But immediately there was nothing. It was just eerie. I can’t explain how one was not allowed to scream. But when we were out of his distance, there were screams and cries. And I was thinking, “God in heaven, where are you?” We were crying, “Shma Yisrael, why are you punishing us like this?” And some people were hugging each other, “I guess we are just going to die together, and how are we going to die?” Screams, terrible screams. And those of us left alive were screaming and crying too and hugging each other, when will our turn come? And he had symphonies playing beautiful arias from operas, and there was a life and death situation. It was a life and death situation living everyday in the camp.
BERNSTEIN: When did he play the symphonies?
LEBEDUN: When the selection was.
BERNSTEIN: Did he do that every time there was a selection?
LEBEDUN: Not in the beginning, but later on when they brought a woman – what was her name? They made a film about her. She was the chief pianist of the Vienna Philharmonic and there were a lot of Jewish musicians, and when they used to come into camp, they would say, “I’m a musician” or “I’m a doctor,” or “I am an architect.” They used to say, “What is your occupation?” “I am a professor.” So they picked out the musicians and they made an orchestra, “Playing for Keeps.” Did you see that movie about concentration camps? I meant “Playing for Time,” not “for Keeps.” They poisoned her, that pianist, because one of the SS women was jealous because she got privileges and the orchestra was fed with the same rations the Germans were fed and they were in a separate barrack. I met her and she was not much taller than I – a little bit. And she had dark, curly hair. They shaved her hair when she came in but then they found out who she was. So Mengele and the commandant who loved music, Commandant Hoess, and he said, “Oh, we are going to have the best thing in the world.”
BERNSTEIN: And what did she do?
LEBEDUN: She conducted an orchestra. And there was another one who was a beautiful pianist, and she also played the piano. Many times when they had parties in the middle of the night, they woke her up to come and play for the SS when they had a party in Auschwitz proper. They sent a limousine for her and then she could sleep until noon and she didn’t have to stand roll call because she was awakened at night to play for the SS. And the lesser commandant knew her father. They knew each other socially. We kind of envied them too because when we went towards the barrack, the supply barrack, we saw their barrack and they were able to sew up curtains for the windows and they were treated better. They stood roll call, but not like we did. When it was raining they got a change of uniform because when the SS wanted them to play, they didn’t want them to be sick.
BERNSTEIN: They were treated very differently.
LEBEDUN: Very differently than we were. And Sunday afternoon, after the noonday mean was dished out, we were put on roll call and in the middle of the camp they fenced a piece off and that’s where the orchestra played. And it was compulsory that everybody had to be out of the barracks and we had to go on roll call but we didn’t have to stand, we could sit on the ground if we wanted to, and listen to the music.
BERNSTEIN: Why do you think they made that compulsory?
LEBEDUN: I don’t know why, because we didn’t feel so good. We were crying, you know. Some of the music was kind of sad – the arias and music of Tchaikovsky they played and Beethoven and Mendelsohn and all these musicians they had of Europe there. And it was sad but we had to listen. And when the Nazis walked by, they hit us with their sticks and said, “Stop crying, stop crying! You have the best orchestra in the world and you don’t appreciate it.” They were angry at us that we didn’t appreciate the music.
BERNSTEIN: When your hair was shaved and it grew back, did they shave it again?
LEBEDUN: Sure – once a month it was shaved everywhere, everywhere, but we still had lice.
BERNSTEIN: You couldn’t get rid of the lice?
LEBEDUN: No, we couldn’t. They were fumigating our clothings, the barracks and we still couldn’t get rid of them.
BERNSTEIN: What was the role of a kapo?
LEBEDUN: A kapo was a helper for the SS.
BERNSTEIN: So they were only Germans that were kapos?
LEBEDUN: Germans and some Polish kapos.
BERNSTEIN: Were they prisoners?
LEBEDUN: Yes. The Germans were either political prisoners, like the Pollocks, and the Germans were also berufs Verbrechen, they used to call them. They refused to work in the ammunition factories or they were murderers or they were the scum of their society.
BERNSTEIN: Were they ever punished?
LEBEDUN: They were punished but not threatened by death, as we were.
BERNSTEIN: They were a higher level above the Jews?
LEBEDUN: Oh sure. They were our masters, like the Germans – masters over us.
BERNSTEIN: Did they live in the barracks with you?
LEBEDUN: Oh no, they had their own barracks.
BERNSTEIN: Then all the kapos lived together?
BERNSTEIN: Were you ever aware of incidents of sexual abuse from the SS?
LEBEDUN: It wasn’t much, not in Auschwitz. After the war, when we were freed and we met other people who survived and we were talking together, we said, “No matter how bad we thought Auschwitz was and how we thought we’d never come out alive, it was still better that they didn’t sexually abuse us like some other places.” They not only sexually abused, we were told by people who went through it, but they were then shot, killed, because they were afraid they would tell. In Auschwitz it wasn’t as bad. At Auschwitz, when they caught a German seeking sexual gratification with a prisoner, he was severely punished and they were jailed because that was a Rassen Schande. Rassen Schande means – the Germans, the Aryans, they said they are a clean race and they have to clean it up again. And you besmear your race when you lower yourself down to have sexual intercourse with a Jew or a Pollock. Rassen Schande means “a shame to their race.” So, there was some sexual abuse but not as prevalent as it was in other camps.
BERNSTEIN: Do you have any idea why the other camps would not have those same rules?
LEBEDUN: Auschwitz was the strictest of all the camps.
BERNSTEIN: We talked about going from Auschwitz to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then you said that you still had the red patch on you when you went to Telefunken?
LEBEDUN: Somebody – a friend of mine – ran and got – the day before they had newcomers from Holland and they brought raincoats with them. My friend ran and got a raincoat over me. It was kind of misty, drizzly, and they put the raincoat over me and I buttoned it up. I happened to have a skirt which didn’t fit me too well, and a top and it wasn’t any more the striped uniform, we were wearing the discards from the newcomers. And I had a top and a bottom. I took the top off with the red spot, and put the raincoat over me and buttoned it.
And when I pushed myself in front of when Katja motioned to me that I should come up front, and she was standing right next to three civilians who were selecting, with her help, who is going to go to that transport. She motioned to me to push myself up front and then she said to let Selma and Joan go after me. When I went up front I was asked why I had this raincoat on, and I said, “I lost my top.” And he looked at my number and asked, “How long are you here?” And I answered him. Then, “Where are you from?” And I told him. “And what schooling did you have?” I told him. “How do you speak such good German?” I told him my mother had German in school and taught it to us. “And are you alone?” I said, “Yes.” Then, “What happened to your other family?” I told him, “I don’t know.” He asked if I had friends there and I replied, “Just by acquaintance that we are here.” “From your home town?” I said, “No, I have nobody from my home town.”And he said, “O.K.,” and turned to Katja, the scribe, “Get her number.” And there comes the SS woman who was in charge of our females, helping the main commandant and she said, “This prisoner cannot go.” And he asked, “Why not?” “She is a punished prisoner.” He asked why. So, she told him that they claimed I was helping the underground. “Strike her out.” And he looked at her and said, “You’re not going to tell me what to do. You stay out of this. I select my own people.” And she said, “I’ll get the commandant.” And he replied, “Get whomever you want. You’d better watch what you are saying to me. You have no jurisdiction over me. She stays!” And he selected a hundred that day. And I was about the upper third when Katja motioned to me. Then my sister came after me and then he turned to Katja. I stood in the background. “How many do we have?” And she said, “Well, we need five more.” I’ll remember this as long as I live. “We need five more and we’ll have a hundred.” So, they got five more after a while and he turned to the SS woman and said, “I want the number 7290 (he wrote it down on a piece of paper) here tomorrow morning by the train. If not, you are going to be responsible to the higher ups in Berlin.” I guess he disliked her because she told him, “You cannot have her.”
BERNSTEIN: Why do you think she wanted to keep you?
LEBEDUN: Because she wanted to dispose of me ‘cause she told me when I came back after I was punished and there I was in the bunker, in jail, so to speak. “I’ll get you someday with this gun.”
BERNSTEIN: What happened in the jail?
LEBEDUN: They were interrogating me there.
BERNSTEIN: How long did you have to stay there?
LEBEDUN: I was there two weeks.
BERNSTEIN: Did you have contact with anyone?
LEBEDUN: The men’s camp sent me two roses from the commandant’s. They knew, you know, that they had underground, the men. They knew that I was safe and in the bunker and they told Jacob, who was in charge of the bunker – the jail – he was a Jew and he was married to a non-Jew and he came to Poland to visit his mother. He was an opera singer some place in this country – in the United States. And that time he came to visit his mother in Poland, he knew that things were bad and he thought maybe he could smuggle her out. And he was working on it and they caught him. He used to come and talk to me.
BERNSTEIN: So they had you at the railroad station the next morning?
LEBEDUN: Oh yes. Katja came and told me, “Under no circumstances do you leave this barrack,” because we were immediately put on a different barrack, the hundred, for the night. I didn’t know what she could do.
BERNSTEIN: Did you know then where you were going?
LEBEDUN: We were told we were going to an ammunition factory.
BERNSTEIN: Was that supposed to be a good thing to go to, an ammunition factory?
LEBEDUN: We didn’t know if it was a good thing, but they wanted me out of the camp. If I was going to survive, I had to get out.
BERNSTEIN: Was that Telefunken?
LEBEDUN: Yes. It was in upper Silesia. I forgot the name of the town.
BERNSTEIN: So you got on the train the next morning?
LEBEDUN: Yes I did, and my sister got on with me.
BERNSTEIN: And what happened to Katja?
LEBEDUN: Katja stayed to the very end in the camp and somehow she hid when the Russians came and she was saved. I know because one of the girls who went back to Czechoslovakia wrote to the other girl who was living in New York that she heard from Katja, Mrs. Shaunska – she married a non-Jew. She was Jewish and they lived in Prague and she had a son when they took her from the street. And her husband couldn’t save her. She told him to run and he somehow saved himself. He was an engineer. And she found him after the war because she was with us in Sweden and they corresponded and she went back to Czechoslovakia.
BERNSTEIN: What happened to the son?
LEBEDUN: He was safe with his father.
BERNSTEIN: Did she become the scribe after you at the camp? You were the scribe first, weren’t you?
LEBEDUN: No – of my barrack. She was the main scribe.
BERNSTEIN: How did she get to be the main scribe?
LEBEDUN: She came on the same transport as my sister and she was at that time in her last year at the university. And somehow they picked her. And she was the main scribe.
BERNSTEIN: Did that give her some extra privileges?
BERNSTEIN: And she was Jewish but her husband was not?
LEBEDUN: No this was someone else, a different Katja. Mrs. Shaunska was the one who got the word that Katja was safe.
BERNSTEIN: But Katja was the main scribe?
BERNSTEIN: And you say Katja was Jewish and her husband was not?
LEBEDUN: No, Mrs. Shaunska was a different lady. Katja was not married at that time. She was engaged but they took him and she never heard from him anymore.
BERNSTEIN: Oh, Mrs. Shaunska was the one who gave you the information on Katja?
LEBEDUN: Yes, that she was saved after the war.
BERNSTEIN: How long a train ride was it to the labor camp?
LEBEDUN: I think it was about two days and a night – a day and a night and the next day we were there. It was on the outskirts of that town. We marched from the train station. We didn’t pull into the train station proper, but before the train station. And we marched to the compound.
BERNSTEIN: How long of a march was that?
LEBEDUN: Oh, I imagine about an hour – less than an hour. It was a brisk march and the barracks were built out of stone. And it was in the middle of winter.
BERNSTEIN: This was in what month?
LEBEDUN: It was late, late fall – not winter, but you know in Europe it is already snowing and cold.
BERNSTEIN: And this was 1944?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And it was in November and it was rainy and dreary and freezing cold. And we came into the barracks and we noticed there were green molds on the walls and ice. There were no heating facilities. And we were on the second floor. And the compound was also behind barbed wire.
BERNSTEIN: Now who was Joan? You said…
LEBEDUN: Joan was a friend which I befriended. I also befriended in this work camp, Telefunken, with another Joan and her cousin.
BERNSTEIN: What is Oberschlesien?
LEBEDUN: It is higher Silesia. It was the north end of Germany.
BERNSTEIN: What’s Westfallen?
LEBEDUN: Westfallen was western Germany. That was another work camp. They had another ammunition factory in the mountains.
BERNSTEIN: Did you go to both of them?
BERNSTEIN: Let’s talk about the first one – Oberschlesien.
LEBEDUN: That was Telefunken. When we got there we were assigned to a commando and we were marched the following morning to the commando through the town, right through the city, and they saw us marching because the ammunitions factory was right in the middle of the city, between the population. You see, when they struck they killed innocent population. They were very cunning, the Germans. And they saw us marching and they cannot say that they didn’t know what was going on. See, no German can say. Very few didn’t know what was going on with slave labor and Jews. They were throwing sticks at us, spitting at us – even little kids, little five year olds, six year olds.

Tape 5 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: What were you wearing at this time?
LEBEDUN: Civilian clothes – the rags.
BERNSTEIN: How long were you in stripes before they…
LEBEDUN: We were in Auschwitz proper in stripes from early spring until fall when we were transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
BERNSTEIN: And that was it?
LEBEDUN: Then one time we were in stripes in Birkenau but for a very short time. But when I was a punished prisoner, I was in stripes for three months at one time.
BERNSTEIN: But of the two and one half years or so you were in Auschwitz, you were only in stripes maybe for six or seven months?
LEBEDUN: Yes, because then we were wearing the rags. The Polish political prisoners were in stripes.
BERNSTEIN: What was your health like when you were transferred to the labor camp, Telefunken?
LEBEDUN: I went through the typhus and malaria.
BERNSTEIN: But you were well then?
LEBEDUN: I was pretty well. Funny thing, I didn’t have a sniffle which was lucky.
BERNSTEIN: Were you real thin?
LEBEDUN: Oh yes, real thin. We had a little hair but we still wore kerchiefs.
BERNSTEIN: They let you wear kerchiefs?
LEBEDUN: Yes. We had to wear kerchiefs.
BERNSTEIN: You must have been somewhat strong in comparison to the other prisoners.
LEBEDUN: In comparison to some others, yes. Some of us were walking skeletons but still able to walk. And some who were not such walking skeletons just gave up. That used to infuriate me. I used to say, “Stand up, for God’s sake. I get you shoes. Go to work. So you’ll carry a stick from one place to another, one road place to another, but you’re going to live!” “I’m not going to live, I want to die, I can’t do it anymore, I cannot, I cannot.” I said, “What kind of thing are you? Are you a human being or are you a piece of junk, a piece of drek?” You know what drek is in German. And many said to me, “What is it to you? Leave me alone!” I learned that one can help some people and some people one cannot help at all. But it bothered me.
I used to go to the barrack and Joan, this Joan who survived with me and who is now living in Florida, she kind of watched over me. She is three years older than I am. She used to call me schafele – little lamb. And whenever she didn’t see me, she would look for me. And I was in the corner crying. She said, “Why are you crying, schafele, you cannot help everybody?” How I singled her out, she came to me one time and said, “Oh Hilda, I heard that you can get some salve for my belly.” She had sore upon sore upon sore. And I said, “Oh my God, I’ll get you salve.” And I was thinking, “Oh my God, she’s from Czechoslovakia.” And I started asking her a question and she was fairly new, and she wasn’t in my barrack. And I said, “In what barrack are you?” And she said, “I am at Irma’s barrack.” And she was also from Slovakia. And she said, “Please save me. If you get me the salve, it will heal.” “Avitaminoz,” they used to say the illness was – lack of vitamins – and that’s when we developed sores. And the sores were from lack of nutrients – not just vitamins, but nutrients. I have spots on my legs where I had sores. And you kind of wondered where all that fluid comes from because the sore didn’t look so big but when it was punctured it was like a fountain exploding out of that sore. And I said, “Why did you wait so long?” And she said, “Well I didn’t know about it but one of the girls was putting the salve on and she told me she got it from you.” So I said, “I’ll get it for you.”
BERNSTEIN: How did you get it?
LEBEDUN: Through Ina, a friend I had in the sick bay. I think she survived but I’m not sure.
BERNSTEIN: So you knew Joan from Birkenau?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And I managed to have her transferred to my barrack and I kept her as a helper with me. And then she had a friend, another girl, a cousin of hers – another Joan, and her cousin’s name was – I forgot. Well, there were five of us, my sister and I and the two Joans and that other girl. And I got the other three to my barrack and the little one, her cousin, I got to the commando where my sister was. The other two were my shtubendienst when I became in charge of the barrack. Shtubendienst means that they were maids in the barrack – barrack maids. And whenever she couldn’t find me, she used to look for me. “Schafele, don’t cry. You cannot save the whole world. I know I can thank my life so far to you, but you know you can do just so much and you let it go to your heart so deep that you’re going to get sick.”
BERNSTEIN: She felt like she was indebted to you?
LEBEDUN: Because I saved her life with the salve and having her transferred to my barracks and we didn’t have to march out. When it was raining we stayed in the barrack, and when they were out in the commando and it was raining, we were out in the elements and we were wet. I know I was. We were soaking wet when we came in. And soaking wet almost, we were marched out to work the next day.
BERNSTEIN: Were there other punished prisoners?
LEBEDUN: Oh yes.
LEBEDUN: Not many Jews, that was the minority. I think there were five Jews and the rest were Polish political prisoners when they did some indiscretion, when they caught them around the kitchens and they knew why they were there, getting some extra food or scraps.
BERNSTEIN: So they marched you out into the town where the ammunitions factory was and then what happened?
LEBEDUN: Well, we worked in the ammunition factory. We did different things. Different sections were doing different things. I came into a section with two other girls. I didn’t know them that well in Auschwitz, but one of them was working on one side of the big room and the other one on the other side. I was somehow in the middle and I looked around and I am alone. And a couple people came to me and one said, “I am from the Ukraine.” They were not supposed to see us talking, but you know we had a way of talking to one another, not to look at one another, kind of mumbling we understood and kind of watching those in charge of us that they shouldn’t see us talking. And she said, “I have a friend here who is from the Ukraine.” And a couple other people passed by and they said, “We are nuns.” Nuns! They used to take nuns out of convents to work in the ammunitions factories – German nuns. And so I said, “Oh, how come you are here?” “Well, they came to us and took some of us to work in the ammunitions factories.”
BERNSTEIN: Were these prisoners?
LEBEDUN: Yes, but not political prisoners, they were working prisoners. They were Germans and there were some from the Ukraine – the Germans occupied the Ukraine.
BERNSTEIN: Were they in the barracks with you?
LEBEDUN: No, not with us, they were in different barracks, in a different part of town.
BERNSTEIN: Why do you think they took nuns?
LEBEDUN: To work in the ammunition factories. They needed manpower.
BERNSTEIN: But I just wondered how they picked nuns.
LEBEDUN: They picked anybody who was available in Germany and they were anti-religion. Hitler was anti-religion.
BERNSTEIN: How long did you stay at Telefunken?
LEBEDUN: We were there, I think, four or five months and then we had to flee. The Jews had to flee.
BERNSTEIN: How were you treated there?
LEBEDUN: They weren’t beating us so much. You did your work and you marched to work and you marched back. It was better than Auschwitz, of course. And we knew we were going to get the same food everyday and we were going to get it.
BERNSTEIN: You got more food?
LEBEDUN: A little bit more soup and a little bigger piece of bread. And the factory wasn’t so cold, only the barracks were cold, excruciatingly cold. Frost bites, oh God!
BERNSTEIN: And you didn’t have any coats or anything?
LEBEDUN: We had a little striped jacket – we were wearing stripes there. And the striped jacket was a little thicker.
BERNSTEIN: Why did you have to flee?
LEBEDUN: Because the Russians were coming in.
BERNSTEIN: Did you have any idea what was going on with the war?
LEBEDUN: Oh, there is always an underground every place and they organized things to say the news. They said, “Things are going bad for the Germans.” And we knew they were going bad because they said, “Work, work, work, work.” The part of a bomb they used on England was manufactured, among other plants, in this plant where I was working. It was about this long and it had two seams. It was about a foot long with two seams and the seams were made out of some kind of alloy like an “O-ring” seam and we used to go with an electronic device over them and they told us to be careful not to touch the seams. We could just go on the glass type of a deal which the heart of the bomb was made out of. It looked like glass and it wasn’t glass. It was like an opaque kind of substance and we could not touch the seams.
BERNSTEIN: What would happen if you touched them?
LEBEDUN: They didn’t tell us why not. They just said, “Don’t touch the seams.” And we had pencil and paper books and we had to mark, and they were tested for a week what kind of light we get, and we had to mark if it was sharp white light or it was pinkish light or a purple light. And the divisions we had to make if it was dark purple, light purple or purpleish. You know, we had to mark it. We had to see what kind of light we got through the electronic device. On the part of the heart of the bomb we were testing it was, “Be careful. It is punishable by death when you touch the seam.”
I was working there about a week. My sister was in another division. They were making bullets for anti-aircraft guns where she was working. And one of the nuns was assigned to work with me and showed me the ropes, how to use the device. And I worked on one side of the table and she worked on the other side. It wasn’t a very long table. And the other two who approached me from the Ukraine were working opposite us. And she said to me – she questioned me too about how long I was in Auschwitz and where I had come from, what schooling I had and what kind of Jew I was, from where, if I’m a very religious Jew or less religious Jew and if my whole family is gone. And I said, “Why are you questioning me?” She said, “Well, I can tell you about me, my family.” So I said, “O.K., tell me.” And she told me about hers.
After a week of that, she said to me, “You are intelligent and you went through a lot. Do you want to help us?” I said, “Help with what?” She said, “Our cause.” I said, “What’s your cause?” “Sabotage!” And I froze. I felt like all the blood is running down and coming up. And she said, “Be careful, they are watching us. We are not talking. If he comes and asks you if I said something, you tell him that you asked me if you could go to the latrine.” And sure enough, he came and he asked me about her talking to me. I said, “She just told me I could not go to the latrine right now. I have to finish this test.” So she said, “I will teach you certain things of self preservation. If they see us talking or if you decide to work with us – and you’d better decide to work with us because we can make it hard on you.” I said, “How can I trust you? I don’t know you. How can you trust me? You don’t know me. Maybe when I say I’m going to work with you and you are going to teach me how to sabotage this unit, how do I know you will not go to him and tell him I’m sabotaging?” And she said, “As much as I love my own life, that is how I’m not going to tell about you. And we are all in it, also the other two, and lots has been planned. I’ll give you until tomorrow morning to think about it.”
And I came to camp and I was thinking, “Oh my God, what am I going to do. What do You want me to do? Please God, tell me what You want me to do. I’m doomed if I don’t and I’m doomed if I do.” And my sister looked at me and said, “What went on at work?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” And I told her what she said. And my sister said, “Well Hilda, I know what you are going to do. You’re going to do it. But I am doing something too for the past two days. When they put that thing together, when they left any minute opening and you squeeze it together in the machine, it was a dud.”
BERNSTEIN: So they were putting out all kinds of duds. What did you do?
LEBEDUN: Well, she showed me how to go with the device over the seam at a certain point. The first time you have to do it because if you do it consecutive times, then they will know you’re sabotaging. “You clumsy goof!” She said, “Sometimes make a legitimate mistake, go over it. Then say, ‘Oh my God,’ or ‘Please, please come over here real fast. I went over this seam.”
BERNSTEIN: And when you’d go over the seam, you’d mess up the bomb?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And he said, “Verflucht nochmal” – he used profanity. “Watch it you clumsy girl.” “I am new and I am not so steady. I’m hungry and I’m weak and my hand is shaking.” So he said, “Well, I have to order you a little more bread, don’t I?”
So I got the trail off of me and he didn’t watch me so much. He came by and he saw that I was very careful and he said, “Go a little farther, get closer to the seam. You are doing O.K.” You know, in the beginning they watched us a lot and he saw we were doing fine.
Then she said, “When I give you the word to start, you start.” It took about two weeks and then she said, “Watch me.” The other two watched him so he shouldn’t watch us. And she said, “Watch me with your eyes, don’t avert your face. Go to this point and then you go over it and count to five to be on it, and then you know it’s finished and this bomb will not bomb London anymore.” Then you called immediately – you called him over and I said, “Look what’s happening with this one.” “Oh, we have to go to the division where they are putting them together. What are they doing wrong?” Well, you know, they were Jewish male prisoners who were putting them together, so they were watching them. It was a chain reaction but we got lots of them malfunctioning.
BERNSTEIN: The process was that you watched her eyes…
LEBEDUN: To show me where to go with the electronic device to malfunction the heart of the bomb.
BERNSTEIN: And did you get excited?
LEBEDUN: I was shivering when I did it the first time and she told me to call him immediately and I put it down and came running, “Oh please, there is something wrong with this. Oh God, I wasn’t even near it.” They couldn’t check it. They’d look at the device and say, “Oh my God, I have to report it. Thank you for telling me.”
BERNSTEIN: So he thinks you’re doing a great job?
LEBEDUN: Yes. I am doing a great job because that went to another testing before it was shipped out to be put in the casing before it was shipped out to the airforce where they put it in the planes.
BERNSTEIN: So it had to go through one more testing?
LEBEDUN: Two more testings.
BERNSTEIN: So did they catch them at those testings?
LEBEDUN: As far as I know, they didn’t. You see, we were the main ones to catch it right away before they went to other testings.
BERNSTEIN: And you stayed there for how many months?
LEBEDUN: We were there about five, if I’m not mistaken. Then all the Jews had to flee because the Russians came near.
BERNSTEIN: So how did that work when you had to flee?
LEBEDUN: Well one morning he said, “We are not marching to work because the camp is being liquidated.” And we knew that the Russians were coming near.
BERNSTEIN: Who told you that you won’t be marching to work?
LEBEDUN: The commandant in the camp.
BERNSTEIN: Did they organize you then to go to another factory?
LEBEDUN: They organized us. They fled for their lives, too. You see, the German population that was working in the ammunitions factories, they stayed there. But the prisoners were marching out and the SS which was with us.
BERNSTEIN: So is this when you marched to Westfallen or how did you get there?
LEBEDUN: We first marched over the Sudaten Mountains – first we were put in cattle wagons, open cattle wagons and it was snowing and cold. And they were open coal wagons – not cattle wagons. And we got so black from the coal. But then they were able to get closed cattle wagons about two days in and they told us to get snow and wash ourselves to get the coal dust off of us. And we were pretty clean from the snow we washed ourselves with. And we got chapped because it was so cold – God, it was cold! And then we had to abandon the train and we marched. That was the first death march I was on. Oh God, we were so cold and hungry!
BERNSTEIN: How long did that take?
LEBEDUN: We were marching for about five days and whoever couldn’t walk anymore just got out of the row and sat. We were told, “Whoever can’t walk, get out of the row and sit down. Just stay there and we will pick you up later.” And we were marching and marching for hours and nobody came back. We didn’t see wagons coming. And I was always in the front row – we Slovakian girls were in the front rows and they wanted us there because most of us spoke German. And I said to Joan, “Something is going on. You know we are so far ahead but I cannot help hearing guns going off.” She said, “Schafele, don’t listen to anything.”
BERNSTEIN: You could talk as you were walking along?
LEBEDUN: Yes. They didn’t want us to but we could whisper. Of course, they were about six feet or so away from us.
I said, “Something is going on. I think I hear guns going off.” And again she said, “Schafele, don’t listen to anything. We are safe. You’ve got to think of yourself. We are all together and we have to keep on living. That’s what you told me – we have to keep on living.” I said, “There is just something going on. I’ve got to know.” And behind, about 10 or 15 rows, there were the Hungarian girls which survived. They were with us too. And I said to her and my sister, “I am just going to walk in back next time we stop for rest, and I’ll find out what’s going on.” So while we rested we walked in the back, and we were allowed to go in the bushes, not very good bushes but, you know, to relieve ourselves. And I was able to go about three-quarters down the long road of marchers. And I saw that there were about 20 SS men at the back with guns and I was going down further and I said, “What’s happening? Whom are they shooting” So, one of the girls said, “Hilda, you know who they are shooting, the ones who cannot walk. You are up front there. When are they going to give us something to eat?” I said, “We were told that they went to a village some place when we stopped to rest here and they will try to get some potatoes for us. The farmers have those big drums and they have those potatoes there for the cattle, so maybe they can get potatoes for us.”
And it was us in the front, the Slovakian girls and the Hungarian girls who were going with the SS and given a potato or two. Down the line we were about 400 to 500. We started with thousands and we got smaller and smaller in the four days.
BERNSTEIN: They started with 1000. So they had only taken 100 from Birkenau but they had gotten people from other places?
LEBEDUN: Oh yes, they got people from lots of other camps – not only camps, but when they came to the particular camp, they took them.
BERNSTEIN: O.K. So you started the march with 1000 women and…
LEBEDUN: We ended with about 400 to 500.
BERNSTEIN: And about how many SS were there with you?
LEBEDUN: I think about one SS for every 20 prisoners when we were marching to Germany.
BERNSTEIN: So they told you that you were going where?
LEBEDUN: They didn’t say anything about where we were going. We just had to flee – the Russians were coming near. We knew at the factory then that the Russians were coming near.
BERNSTEIN: And they did get you some food?
LEBEDUN: They gave us a ration of bread to take with us before they put us in the wagons when they took us initially. But when we had to abandon the train and we had to go on foot, we didn’t have food for two days. And then we came to a small town and there was a huge farm and we stopped and the commandant went on his motorcycle to the farm to see if he could find shelter in one of the barns and if we could get some food there. So he came back and the SS woman told me that we were going to go to that farm, that we would sleep in the barn overnight and get food twice – potatoes and something to drink, if not hot, at least water. We were eating the snow from the ground as we were marching so we were not thirsty, we just were hungry. And saw two fields and we saw cabbage which was frozen in the fields and had not been harvested. We were eating that and nothing happened to us. We were glad to have it. It was half frozen.
BERNSTEIN: And the SS were walking too?
LEBEDUN: Yes, they were walking with us.
BERNSTEIN: Did you find a place to sleep each night – some shelter?
LEBEDUN: Except one night, the very first night. We just slept under trees that night, and they were watching us. The SS opened a tent and they slept in the tent but they were watching us. A couple of them ran away, we heard and we never heard anything since. But the SS said they could not run far because they would catch up with them and shoot them.
BERNSTEIN: The first time you helped with the sabotage, you said that you shivered because you were so scared. After you got over that initial fright…
LEBEDUN: It was very exciting and I said, “Oh good, at least they are not going to have all the bombs.”
BERNSTEIN: So that kept you going?
BERNSTEIN: Where did you end up on the first death march?

Tape 5 - Side 2 (Bernstein)

The last time we talked, we ended up – we were at the Czech border and we were loading into trains to go to Sachsonia, and this was after the first death march. The first death march was to Telefunken.
LEBEDUN: No, the first death march was from Oberschlesien, from Upper Silesia to the Czech border and then we were loaded into the open cattle wagons and were going to Sachsonia because there was no other place to go. The tracks were bombed.
BERNSTEIN: You had been at Telefunken already?
BERNSTEIN: And you were going to Westfallen?
LEBEDUN: Yes. We were going toward Sachsonia. That’s not Westfallen, it’s western Germany.
BERNSTEIN: So you were going to Sachsonia.
LEBEDUN: Yes. We were hoping we could get to a camp, a concentration camp there but there were none available. Sachsonia was a part of southeastern Germany, and there were several concentration camps in Sachsonia. None of them could take us in, so they rerouted us towards Berlin and the tracks were bombed. We couldn’t go too far towards Berlin, so then they rerouted us towards Westfalia. But we couldn’t get there by train, so that was the second death march and we would up in Gross Rosen. That was another concentration camp which was housed in an abandoned salt mine, deep in the mountains. We stayed there at that camp after that death march when there was more reduction – whoever couldn’t walk was shot. From Sachsonia we traveled by the same cattle wagons for a while – I don’t remember – a couple days and then we couldn’t go any further and they had to stop the train and we just fled on foot. So that was the second death march and there were every day deaths in the wagons. We had to stand roll call out of the wagons and they were just hauling them out, those who died overnight or during the day and besides the death marches, we were just dying.
BERNSTEIN: How was your health at that point?
LEBEDUN: I was hungry and thirsty but I wasn’t sick per se.
BERNSTEIN: Approximately when did you get to Gross Rosen?
LEBEDUN: The beginning of February, 1945 – either the end of January or the beginning of February. We stayed in Gross Rosen not quite a week, and, oh God, it was a horrible thing to see, how the other girls looked, working underground in the salt mines in the ammunition factory – like zombies – pale and it was just horrible. We didn’t do anything, we were just in the camp because they were trying to arrange for us to go on because they couldn’t absorb us. I don’t even know how many of us were left from that transport. There were quite a good number of us Hungarian girls and from Slovakia and some Greek girls and some girls from the Netherlands – Holland.
BERNSTEIN: How many of you were there?
LEBEDUN: I don’t remember exactly. When we left Hamburg – no, when we left upper Silesia I think there were about 3000 of us but it was greatly reduced because there were about 1000 of us left – a little over a thousand when we reached Westfalia. When we stayed in Gross Rosen, then we fled again on foot after a week at Gross Rosen. We met other people there who passed through Auschwitz to different camps and we started talking with a few of them after roll call but before lager Ruhe, when everybody had to go into the barracks, and there were so few left. There were lots of Greek girls in that camp and Hungarian girls at Gross Rosen. Behind the high voltage barbed wire there was a man’s camp, and oh God, I don’t know who looked the worst – we or the men. I think the men because when a man is unable to shave I guess he gets more haggard of a look. I don’t know – maybe their bodies don’t have the resiliency a woman’s has and they deteriorate faster, we thought.
Then we went on a march again on foot and we were walking – that was the third or fourth death march – I don’t remember any more. And it was cold with snow and ice, and we were so cold and hungry.
BERNSTEIN: Were there a lot of Nazi guards?
LEBEDUN: Oh yes – there were still lots of them. You see, we were bombed. There were bombs flying over us when we left Sachsonia and the SS wanted to flee and the commandant on the motorcycle was going up and down, “Stay with the prisoners. You are safer with the prisoners.” Because we heard over the grapevine that the English – we called them Tommies, that their intelligence is very good and they were not bombing German troops when they were in the vicinity of us fleeing from place to place.
BERNSTEIN: Now, Sachsonia was a part of Germany, it was not a camp. Was the camp there Gross Rosen?
LEBEDUN: No, the camp in Sachsonia was Mauthausen, Sachenhausen, other places. Mauthausen and Sachenhausen we heard were very terrible camps. It was a stone quarry where they used to work the prisoners and they used to be pushed down. Oh, terrible things we heard about Mauthausen, Sachenhausen and several other lesser camps which names I don’t recall anymore.
BERNSTEIN: When did you go to Westfallen?
LEBEDUN: When we left Gross Rosen, we were going towards another ammunition factory but we didn’t know – there were several of them – where we were going, how we would get there. There were no trains available and we were walking in that terrible cold, and that’s when my feet got frost bitten. I don’t remember if we walked two or three days. We slept in barns at night. If we got closer to a big farm or under a lean-to which had some little roof over it, or just out.
BERNSTEIN: How did you keep warm?
LEBEDUN: We just got closer together and that’s how we kept warm. Some of us lost the little blanket we carried which was sort of like a paper, a celluloid blanket. God, those blankets were so full of lice, so we just threw them away. And then we came toward a small town – I don’t know the name. Gross Rosen was in between Sachsonia. I don’t know what place is Gross Rosen in Germany but it was sort of northwest. Sachsonia is southeast and you can see what kind of territory we covered. And then we stopped there and we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. And, as I recall, there was no snow there but it was very, very cold and they put us on a huge clearing, sort of like a meadow, and they told us to group according to nationalities and they told us, “In these rows, in this perimeter, you can be.”
And it was kind of cloudy when we got there but the sun was shining and I was looking towards the distance and I saw kind of shimmering waves in the distance. And that’s when there is metal and the sun hits it, there is sort of like a – I don’t know what the technical name for it is. And I told you there were five of us together and I turned to Joan and I said, “You know, there is something fishy about this whole thing because you see when you look in the distance there is something wrong. I bet there are machine guns there and they are going to shoot us.” So she said, “Well, don’t be an alarmist. If they’re going to shoot us, they’ll shoot us and we’ll get out of our misery.” We were such skeletons and so thirsty. They told us, “Well, you can lay down.” We were tired because we couldn’t lay or stand properly in the wagons, we were so pressed together. And we were laying down on the meadow and there is sort of deadish grass – you know, like now there is no greening yet too much on the lawn. And it was cold but the sun was shining pretty warm. But it bothered me what that was in the distance. And the SS came by and the SS woman who was in our barrack told me, “If everything goes allright, see – remember the numbers of our wagon and get back there.” Because somehow we were in that wagon where there were girls from Slovakia and from Bohemia and from Karpatho-Ukraine or from Czechoslovakia and some girls from Holland and Hungarian girls, the remnants. And somehow we didn’t have many deaths. And when we got food, I said, “Everybody sit in this spot. If we’re going to push, somebody will get two rations and somebody will get none.” So, we somehow were able to survive better because we had a better organization.
BERNSTEIN: Why do you think the organization was better?
LEBEDUN: Well because there were five of us there, the first ones who reached camps, you know.
BERNSTEIN: You always stayed at the front?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And I said to the girls, “Let’s stay together so we die together and if something happens and they tell us to run back for the wagons, just stay close to one another and we’ll see if we can reach our wagon.” And I remember the number. It was 45617 – that’s 745617 – I will never forget it.
BERNSTEIN: So the wagons were numbered and you walked. What went on the wagon? You didn’t travel on the wagon?
LEBEDUN: Yes, in the cattle wagons we traveled. So we were just laying there and the SS woman came and talked to me. I said, “What’s going on? Are there machine guns out there? Are they going to shoot us?” And she said to me, “Hildhin, I don’t know, but the commandant went with some others. There is a town nearby here. If we get some food for you and us, we are going to go on. If we don’t, it is anybody’s guess. I am not allowed to say anything else. I’m just telling you to remember your numbers and when you see me there, just go towards me.”
We were laying there, I don’t know for how long and we were just talking among each other, “Well, I guess this is it. Maybe it’s for the better.” Our strength was giving out and the Joan who is in Israel, she said, “You know, I can’t even pray anymore. There is no God when He’s letting this happen.” She came from a very, very Orthodox family. Her father was a rabbi and her grandfather was a chief rabbi. She said, “There is just no God.” And we were telling her as she cried, “Don’t cry. You are wasting your strength crying. There is a God. Who knows why this is happening to us. Maybe we’ll survive. We have to have hope against all hope.” She was kind of angry with me and she said, “You are lecturing me about crying? You cry all the time. I cry loud and you cry silently. I see the tears rolling down and you are wiping them so nobody will see.” So I told her, “There is a difference between crying and crying. When you cry, you are real loud and get very upset. That’s more stressful.” And we were debating it. You know, just to get ourselves out of that situation that we are going to die.
Then the whistle blew and they said, “Roll call, roll call, roll call.” And we saw in the distance the commandant on his motorcycle and behind him an entourage, about six big drums pulled by horses and they were full of potatoes, boiled potatoes which the farmer had made as a feed for his oinkies – pigs. And I guess they bought it or something. And every one of us got three potatoes and one cupful of water – three small potatoes. And we were told, “In orderly fashion, let’s go back to the wagons.” In the meantime – see there was a distance – we didn’t know that the train was changed and the wagons were not closed anymore but they were open. When we got closer and I looked and I see our SS woman – we had two who took turns and then at night we had men, two of them which were guarding when we stopped. And the SS woman motioned to me and I said, “Girls, gather around and let’s stay together,” and we left together. And I looked at the SS woman and she said, “Jahvol, coal wagon.” Something happened to one of the couplings on some of the wagons. They were able to pull them away and got us another one. They got us one which was powered by coal. We traveled by electric locomotives, by coal locomotives – whatever they could get.
BERNSTEIN: So the cattle wagons were trains?
LEBEDUN: Yes. The train wasn’t from cattle, it was from coal, hauling coal, and coal dust was everywhere. That night it was kind of drizzling and we were wet and cold and we were huddled together. And it was so cold when we pulled away. In the morning we looked at each other and we looked like black people. The SS woman came in and she said, “Mein Gott, wier haben neger Juden,” my God, you are like Nigger Jews. And I said, ‘That’s how bad we look?” We had no mirrors no nothing. She said, “You are all black. Only the creases around your eyes and mouths are still your skin.” And I touched my face and looked at my hands which were exposed, and it was all black from the coal dust and the mist, the rain. And it wasn’t half as bad as we were nearing toward Westfalia, that’s northwestern Germany. We were told we were going to northwest Germany. It was so cold that night and there was not enough room to stand comfortably or sleep comfortably. So we were changing positions. One would lie down on the bottom and we kind of huddled almost on top of each other and then we switched so the one on top was very cold and she went in the middle to warm up from our bodies, you know, from one another. And, oh, that was horrible, it was just horrible how cold it was! And I looked at the other girls and they looked at me. And we cried and we laughed. We didn’t know what to do. We looked so funny, so black.
I don’t know how long it took us to get where we got to. We stopped in front of the SS station of that town, and I asked the SS woman where we were. And she said, “In Westfallen.” That’s like Missouri, you know. And I forgot the name of that city, that town. And we were marching through the city towards the camp. When we got there, there were other SS women from that camp to meet us, and men. And since I was with my group in the front, “Mein Gott,” said the commandant from the camp. “Was haben wier, neger Juden?” What do we have here, Nigger Jews? I heard our commandant say, “We had coal wagons.” So he said, “Well there is some water in the camp. Who wants to wash?” And I was wondering why does he say, “Who wants to wash?”
And as we were nearing towards the camp – it was high up in the mountain, cold even during the day and it was sort of on the side of a mountain on a clearing, the camp. And we met there some of the girls who’s left Auschwitz six, seven months ago on the Dutch transports. Some of them were there. And some of the Hungarian girls which were on an earlier transport saw us and said, “God, are you still alive?” And we said, “Oh my God, you are alive!” And we were hugging each other. And one of the girls I remembered from Auschwitz was from Holland and she spoke very good German and she said, “Oh, this is a terrible situation!” She held the position of scribe in Auschwitz, like Katja, because she spoke German. And she said, “There is an ammunitions factory in the mountain and you have no idea how they have the most recent technology and facilities. They have elevators going down underground where the factory is. I was there a couple of times and it’s unbelievable what those blasted Germans do, unbelievable. But there are lots of casualties and they don’t give a damn.” You know what happens. They had to work with acid and no gloves and they were also making bombs and one part of ammunition. I went there one time with the noon meal. I pleaded with her, “I want to see it. Send me there!” And I was just in the front, the one – the other, deeper, I wasn’t. And I was just looking around and they had machinery like I had never seen before, even more sophisticated than the one I had worked in at Telefunken. The big company who was in this valley was S.G. Farben. It’s very well known.
The terrain was very beautiful. There were flowers coming up, not in the campsite because they leveled it off and when it rained it was muddy, but not like the mud in Auschwitz. It was kind of reddish mud. There was a man’s camp nearby because men were working there too, but they kept us very isolated from one another, and we got our main supply from the man’s camp. So we had to go everyday about five kilometers and push and pull wagons to get bread and the rotten beets and rotten potatoes to cook our meals. And that was the best time, our walk in the countryside, even though we had to push and pull. I was working again inside the camp. I saw the girls picking flowers and I said, “Don’t pick them. We are dying, but let the flowers live.” The flowers were so pretty. In Europe the countryside has much more abundant flora than some places here in Missouri.
We were there – I don’t even know how long. There were air raids by the English, the Tommies, because their intelligence knew the Germans were there in the mountains in the ammunition factories. We had to flee that camp on foot again. Now that was another death march and we were fleeing towards Hamburg. In Westfalia, that night when we got there, I said to my sister and the two Joans, “You know, I am going to investigate the barrack next to the latrine. It’s supposed to be a washroom.” And my sister said, “Wait until the morning to investigate.” Again, there was barbed wire fence, but not like in Auschwitz, not so high. And there were watch towers around, closer than Auschwitz, because the perimeter was smaller. They said, “It’s too dangerous. We’ll go early in the morning after roll call.”
The next morning, we got up and crept out from the front, not the back, because the watch towers were too close. And we went towards the washrooms. We opened the faucet and the water was running about as thick as my finger and cold as ice! The floor was cement and there were a couple of wooden planks on the floor. When the water dripped a little bit on the floor and you stood on it, your foot got frozen to the floor. And if we wanted to get washed, and there was nothing to wipe on, we’d better not wash our feet because they would freeze to the plank and you’d pull off your skin freeing them, and that’s curtains. So we tried to wash our hands and face and some of it came off. In that cold we had nothing but the water. Then two SS women came in, “What are you doing here? It’s not even roll call yet in the morning.” The other one said, “Oh, if they braved this cold, they want to wash themselves, leave them.” And they left us.
When we got back to the barrack, I said, “If you want to wash yourselves quickly, go.” Luckily we were put in two barracks with the girls we came together with on all those marches and traveling. So, they went to wash and I warned them not to remove their shoes.” We had no decent socks. They were rags we had to wrap around our feet and we had to let them dry. When we came back to our barrack, I touched my face, and the ice was melting from my body heat and it was so cold. I felt that if I moved, my face would crack and my hands. But no harm was done to us.
Then in the morning we got our first ration of a piece of margarine.

Tape 6 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: You had your first piece of margarine?
LEBEDUN: A piece of margarine and that funny bread again. That margarine was again ersatz margarine – I don’t know what it was made out of but it wasn’t made out of good stuff. When the Germans didn’t have natural things, they called them “ersatz.”
BERNSTEIN: Where was it you came in with the coal and were asked if you wanted to wash?
LEBEDUN: Westfalia.
BERNSTEIN: And did you get to clean up there?
LEBEDUN: Yes, but we didn’t wash too good. But the following morning we used a part of the piece of the margarine to put on our faces and our hands because we couldn’t get the coal dust out of the pores. And then I went to the Dutch girl – I can’t think of her name right now but I just see her in front of my eyes. She was tall with kind of reddish-blonde hair and peaches and cream complexion. Most of the girls from Holland had peaches and cream complexions. I went after her and asked what we could do to wash ourselves. We looked ridiculous. And she said, “Well, I don’t know but I’ll ask the commandant because he laughs every time he sees the roll call there, calling them the neger Juden, Nigger Jews.” Then, later on she told me that there was washing soda but to use it very sparingly because it could be caustic. You know, it was part lye and it was burning, and we said, “Oh, oh, we cannot do it.” When it rained we were so glad. We stood there in the rain and exposed ourselves as much as possible and it finally washed out of our hair and our faces and our bodies.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take?
LEBEDUN: About a week. And when it was raining and we didn’t march out until the rain stopped sometimes. So, the ones which stayed in the camp, even at the roll call, we were standing straight and the SS was laughing, “The neger Juden, trying to wash out the black of their bodies.” And we even got naked, undressed – the Hell with the soldiers in the watch towers! They were just German soldiers and they didn’t bother us. We heard them laughing because, I guess, news travels fast that they had about 1000 neger Juden in camp.
BERNSTEIN: Did you have jobs at Westfalia?
LEBEDUN: Yes. I was working in camp again and I was responsible to get all the food to the barrack with the nine girls which were in my barrack. So we were pulling a big – like a three-wheeler. We were lucky to have a three-wheeler crate. It had two wheels on the side and one in the back, a smaller wheel. And we had to trudge down to the men’s camp. Right in front of the men’s camp was the kitchen and the supply room where we got our rations. And we had to go everyday whether it was raining or shining or whatever. But it was hard to pull it, you know, because you had to get lots of supplies for 500 or 600 girls or 400 in a barrack. But we still found it the nicest thing that could have happened to us. The other girls were marching almost the same road. They went to the right and we went to the left, to the men’s camp. And in passing we got news from the men. They used to holler over the barbed wire fence, “It won’t be long. Let’s keep ourselves strong, it won’t be long. They are losing on all counts.” And the SS was yelling”Verdammt nochma! God damn you, speak in a language we can understand what you’re talking about.” And a couple of times they pulled out a gun and said, “If you won’t quit, I’ll shoot, I’ll shoot on sight!”
BERNSTEIN: So what language were they speaking?
LEBEDUN: Oh, we were speaking in Slovakian, Czech, Hungarian; and somebody says, “Is there anybody French there?” And one of the girls said, “Oui.” The Frenchmen from the camp used to tell them, “We heard the news from the underground. They are losing on all fronts! They are losing on all fronts!” And we used to say, “If we stay alive, maybe we won’t stay alive. Maybe they won’t let us stay alive.” “No, well we have to hope, we have to hope, we have to hope.”
BERNSTEIN: So how long was it after that?
LEBEDUN: And after that, when they started bombing and they were coming closer and closer to where we were, getting closer to the ammunition factory, we had to flee through the mountains on another death march. And we came to some kind of a small town and were there two days, wondering back and forth. And the airplanes were flying over us – air raids. And we said, “What kind of planes are they?” Those Tommies, you know, the English. And somebody said, “Oh, there are Americans also because the Americans crossed the channel.” And we said, “Oh my God, if we all do die before this happens.” We were thinking, you know.
Then again they got some kind of a cattle wagon, open but not cold, and we came about five kilometers away from Hamburg. There were air raids and bombs were flying all above us. (IMITATES NOISE OF BOMBS) We saw them but none of us got hurt. They didn’t hit our convoy but nearing towards Hamburg we stopped a couple of places, far away from the station, and they were looking for food for us there – maybe a potato or two and sometimes we got it and sometimes we didn’t. We just pulled away. Many of us died from hunger, from starvation and we were just so weakened. We heard that a couple men’s convoys were hit. And so we cried but someone said, “The only good consolation is that the SS was killed with them.” That was somehow an accident by bad intelligence reports. But whenever there was a bombing and we were in a valley, two tracks (one was going and one was coming), and whenever the SS wanted to run, they took their little possessions in a little valise and the commandant went on his motorcycle shouting, “Stay with the prisoners. They have extremely good intelligence. Stay with the prisoners. We are safer with them than when we run into the countryside because they are near and they are marching. The Allied troops are marching.”
BERNSTEIN: Was it the Allied troops you were seeing in the distance at that other one? But they were too far to catch up with you?
LEBEDUN: When we were over there it was too far. Then we went to Dresden and we were about five kilometers from the highway. We saw the Russians there. They occupied Dresden. Dresden is right near Sachsonia and we saw the bombs flying, and when we pulled out we saw the bombed out buildings. We were so happy, we were screaming from happiness. And the SS was yelling, “Be quiet.” They shot in a couple of places and killed. And I said, “Girls, let’s not laugh, please, quiet. Cover your mouths. We don’t want to die by their bullets.”
And many times we heard, “Raus, raus, out, out. Everybody out of their wagons in the morning for roll call.” And then we had to pull out the dead. They used to come to our wagon asking, “How come you don’t have so many deaths? How come there are not that many dead people here?” One time, one of the girls said, “Because God is all over us.” And he started laughing and said, “Oh, you stupid, dirty, rotten, stinking, damned Jews! They are Jews, too. Why just you?” “We don’t know. Maybe God sent an angel over us and not over the others.” Jokingly, but we didn’t know what to think. I guess because we went through so much and we were in Auschwitz the longest and in other camps when they got us together. And maybe our morale was a little better and we were able to get better rations because we were distributing them evenly.
They gave us a big knife to slice the bread which was foul smelling, but we were so hungry we ate it. And one SS woman said to the SS man, “Watch them, they shouldn’t turn the knife at you.” When I was tired cutting, my sister took over. When she was tired cutting, the other two girls took over and we had other five girls which took over. And we put it neatly on the floor of the wagon. And 10 of us would sit down in rows and we knew all the faces and everybody got a ration. There was never any screaming and fighting. We were lucky because we were organized, you see. And when the SS man said, “You’d better watch her!,” the SS woman said, “No, not these girls, they wouldn’t turn the knife against you.” It was a good knife so it goes fast and smooth, a sharp knife. They were big, huge knives. What could we do? So, we would have killed an SS. So what? There was no place to run, no place to go. I used to whistle sometimes. I whistle pretty good. I couldn’t sing anymore because I got so hoarse. And the two SS who took turns standing guard at night opened the sliding door a little bit so the air should come in. They said, “They cannot run no place. There is no place to run.” But some of them tried, and they were shot on sight. And maybe they were not even dead, but they were left to die in there, so there was no sense to it.
When we got to Hamburg – it was in the middle of the northwestern part of Hamburg. There was a train station nearby. The camp was, again, behind wire and on top of it, on the very top had high wall pitch, not the bottom. It was in the middle of the town and there was no place to run either. There was an ammunition factory but it was shut down because they couldn’t get any supplies – that’s how bad it was already. This was in 1945 in March – it was middle March when we got there. We found out there were 300 political prisoners about three, four kilometers away – Polish political prisoners, women and men in different camps nearby. Then we also found out that there was another men’s camp – Jewish men, and French political prisoners not too far from the Polish political prisoners’ camp and they wore striped uniforms. We saw them a couple of times. They came in and we saw when they came, the officers of the SS and their quarters were on the other side of us. The kitchen was in the very back. We also found out that there was some kind of other camp of deserters from the army, the German army, and P.O.W.’s of diversified nationality on the other side of the other camps. We got supplies from the men’s camp, and the men delivered us. We didn’t go out, the women didn’t go out but the men came with heavy guard to deliver to the front gate the food which we needed everyday. I was in the front with some others to take it over, and I was among them. One of the men was from Slovakia and he looked at my number and he said, “Oh my God. Do you see my number?” It was about 3000. And he said, “Where are you from?” He was from Karpath-Ukraine and he said, “You know, from my district, so far as I know, I am the only one because all the transports which passed through here carried none of us. I am the only one from Slovakia here.” So I told him there were about maybe 200 of us that I know from Slovakia in this group and that we were from Auschwitz for a long time. And he said, “Oh my God. But, things are looking up,” he said, “because they are losing on all counts and pretty soon they will get closer to Hamburg and bomb us too. I just hope their intelligence is good and they don’t get us because I want to live. I want to survive this.” He asked if I was there alone and I told him, “Well, not exactly.” He said, “I understand,” because the SS was around and somehow they let us talk sometimes. Then he said, “Well, I don’t know if I’ll see you tomorrow but I’ll see you again.” He was in charge of the whole supply room and he wanted to come in to see who else came in the previous evening.
I saw him one more time and he passed me a piece of the SS bread. They had white, better bread with rye and white flour mixed. And he said, “Well, here is to freedom. I have it from the underground that we have to brace ourselves for bombing because the Allied are all over, helping the English, the Americans.”
When I got back to the barrack, I took a knife and started dividing the bread between the five of us, and there was a piece of paper and he wrote, “Tonight or tomorrow night we think is going to be the first air raid.” Sure enough, the following night, in the middle of the night, sirens – air raid all over Hamburg. We heard it and we had to go out and we huddled right in the middle of the camp.
BERNSTEIN: The camp was in Hamburg?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And we saw bombs flying. It was eerie and sounded like (IMITATES NOISE OF THE BOMBS). And the anti-aircraft guns. It was a bedlam. And we were huddled together and the SS was with us. They came from their barracks to watch us who was on duty. And some of them stayed in their barracks which were just across the road. And they hit the SS barracks. A lot of SS men were killed – they were sleeping. When the air raid started, they were the first to be hit. Then they ran across the street to us and then we heard gunshots from the SS quarters and we didn’t know what was happening. Gerda was her name – the Dutch girl, and she came and said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us but I think they were hit because my SS woman who just came a while ago said that some of the SS wanted to run out of their compound and the commandant was shooting them, their own men. Two or the barracks were demolished and there are lots of dead and injured.” That was that night. After a while it subsided and we went back to the barracks but no sooner did we get there than we had to go back on roll call.
Then, during the daylight, we saw in the distance – we couldn’t see too well because they were in the back on that side and there were some demolished barracks and there were still fires smoldering. We still were there, the following night again, suddenly, we heard whizzing bombs all around us. It seemed like a while before the air raid sirens sounded. Again, the SS barrack was hit but when it started and they probably heard the bombs flying over, they came to our camp and they stayed with us. Two barracks were demolished and just very few people were hurt over there the SS because they ran across the road to us.
The following night, she was awakened in the middle of the night and the commandant when she came across told her to compile a list of the prisoners according to nationality, and also all the German kapos who were in the camp, as fast as she could. He told her to get help if she needed it and that he wanted the list within two hours because it was important. She asked him where we were going and he said not to ask questions but to get help from those who could write and speak German and get the list compiled in two hours. There were about 3000 people.
So, she comes and wakes me up, “Hilda, wake up, wake up.” I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “Wake up your sister and a couple of others and come up front. I need help.” When we came quickly up front, she said, “Go to every barrack and get whoever can speak real German in all the other barracks. We need people to get this list.”
When we were making the list, I asked how many Slovakian girls were there. There were lots of Hungarian girls. There were some from Holland and some from Germany. There were a couple from Theresienstadt and very few from Greece, a few Dutch, because, you see, the Hungarian Jews were the last to go and the French, and in our vicinity that’s what it was. So we were lumped together, the Slovakian girls with the Hungarian girls and we had to stand roll call as such, not any more than 10 in between, such a big space. We had to get ready for roll call and just as it started, Gerda came running and she said, “Hilda, run in the kitchen. The soup has to come out immediately. We are pulling out as soon as we get the food and some tea distributed and a piece of bread. I asked where we were going and she replied, “I don’t know, but we are going towards Denmark.” I said, “So, big deal, Denmark is occupied by the Germans. Are we going for slave labor or for spring work in the fields?” So she said, “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t hear nothing. Didn’t get news from the men’s camp.” She used to get news from “sources,” you know. We used to call them “the organization.” And I went to the kitchen and this SS woman said, “What does that commandant think? I am a magician?” So I said, “I don’t know, he just said we have to get the tea ready as soon as possible.” That horrible tea, oh God. But it was sometimes warm.
So, we were standing roll call and standing roll call and standing roll call, and we were not allowed to go back in the barracks. And I went to the front office which was still in the compound and I said, “Gerda, there are other kinds of soldiers around the camp. Did you notice it?” She said, “No, I didn’t have a chance to notice it.” And we walked out and it was about from the front office in the compound (DESCRIBES TWICE THE DISTANCE FROM WHERE SHE IS SITTING TO THE WALL OF THE ROOM IN WHICH SHE IS BEING INTERVIEWED) and I said, “What kind of soldier are you?” There was barbed wire close, but the bottom wasn’t electrified, only the top. And he said, “Oh, we are not the SS.” In our morning rush, we didn’t notice that part of the SS was replaced, the SS guards, with other soldiers with other uniforms. And he said, “No, we are not SS. We are Wehrmacht.” That means they work inside Germany. And he asked where I was from. I told him Slovakia. He said, “You speak good German. You are going to be free.” I said, “Please, I’m an old prisoner and I don’t believe anything, especially from a German.” He said, “You are going to Denmark.” And I said, “Big deal.” And Gerda said, “Yes, for slave labor, working in the fields?” He said, No, no. The war is turning bad for Germany. I am glad that the war is coming to an end. I don’t know where my wife and my children are. My oldest son, I know, was shot over Russia or someplace and my family is from southern Germany and I don’t know what happened to them. I am glad the war is going to be over.” And I said, “Oh, we don’t believe you.” And Gerda said, “We don’t believe you.” Then a couple of other girls came out and he said, “Don’t come so close. We’re not supposed to talk to one another. What will help you to believe me?” I said, “Nothing.” Then he reached into his pocket and said to me, “Catch.” Gerda said to move away and not pick up what he had thrown. It was in a brown bag. And I said, “It’s not a bomb.” So I went closer and Gerda came with me. We opened it and it was a piece of bread, his ration. And he said, “You don’t have to worry, that’s not a bomb.” But we didn’t believe him. He said, “I have nothing else to give you because our rations are small too, but you’re going to be pulling towards Denmark.” Other soldiers came so we left.
Gerda was called up front and she came back with a big smile on her face and said, “He was telling the truth. We are going towards Denmark. They are readying the wagons and we thought we were going to pull out already, but the wagons were delayed.”
BERNSTEIN: Did they ever use the list you made?
LEBEDUN: Yes, they used the list and we had the soup in the camp. I didn’t feel my arm, there was so much soup to dish out. For a couple of days, my right arm was sore. We were going faster and faster and I was really conscientious. We had a huge long ladle and I was mixing it because the few potatoes which were in it were on the bottom. We took a stick, whatever we could find to mix it so everybody gets a fair share. And we were grouped according to nationality. So, we were the first ones to leave the camp, the few Slovakian girls and the Hungarian girls and some more Hungarian girls and we were marched out by 100 towards the station. We saw the German people were looking and some of them were laughing and some were just staring at us skeletons who were dirty and ugly. And whenever anyone came close, they were told to stay away because we were lousy and dirty and diseased. We were!

Tape 6 - Side 2 (Bernstein)

Not in the station, but in front of the station proper, they divided us by 50 – 50 and 50 per wagon. And they said, “Don’t go in yet.” And we saw there were bundles of straw which was unusual. They had never done that before. And each wagon got two big bundles of straw and I was in the front with my group plus five others. We were told to hop in and distribute the straw evenly through the wagon. Then we were allowed to go in. And everything was loaded according to nationality, but it was, “Hurry, hurry, hurry, we have to pull out, we have to pull out.”
We heard air raid sirens and air raids and everything in the background. One time a bomb hit pretty close to the station but it didn’t hit the station. The SS was saying (the few with us), “Stay with the prisoners, stay with the prisoners.” And I asked one of the Wehrmacht soldiers why our SS was in a group – there were about 50 of them. He said, “Those 50 are going with us.” I asked where we were going and he said to Denmark with the commandant and some others. I don’t know what happened to the rest.
Then we were loaded in the wagons and we pulled out as soon as we were loaded. It only took a couple of hours. And we were going towards Denmark. That night and that morning, we reached the Danish border and it was starting to become daylight. We stopped by a little station to refuel the train. One of the German workers there handed a sheet of paper to the SS. I peeked out and saw every Wehrmacht soldier got a paper. And they came in and sat down and I kind of peeked and one of them turned and said, “Why are you peeking?” And I said, “Oh, nothing. What kind of news did you get? What are you going to do with us?” The older one replied, “We told you that you would be free. How many times do we have to tell you? You don’t believe us, do you?” Then the younger one said to him, “They are just dumb Juden. Don’t pay any attention.” The older one said, “Listen, if anything happens, we are safe with them. They won’t bomb us.”
BERNSTEIN: This was the Wehrmacht?
LEBEDUN: Yes. The paper was folded and they were pushing me from the back, “You are so close. Look over.” And as they opened the paper, I noticed one sheet and it was in a black border, “The Fuhrer ist tot (The Fuhrer is dead), alles ist verloren (all is lost).” That’s all I saw. And the younger one said to the older one, “She’s peeking again.” And he said, “Oh, let her see. The dog has abandoned us.”
BERNSTEIN: Was there talk about Hitler during the war?
LEBEDUN: Sure there was talk through organized underground. I can’t explain to you how the underground worked, but it did. When we were to the point of giving up, there was always a little hope that things were going bad for them.
And my friends said, “What does the paper say? What does it say?” I said, “Well, it just says that the Fuhrer, Hitler, is a dog and he has forsaken them. He abandoned them. Their Fuhrer ist tot (dead) and their kampf, all that they strived for is lost for Germany.” And that’s when he said that he didn’t believe that Hitler died but rather that he abandoned them and fled to save his life – that’s what he meant. And I asked, “Can we see the paper? Can I read it?” He said, “No, you know the gist.” And he crumbled it up and threw it out of the train. Then they were quiet.
We were thinking, “There is quiet.” It was an eerie feeling because we didn’t know when we reached our destination if they would have guns, if they were going to shoot us.
So we came towards Denmark, it was a small station and we stopped a little away from the station. The door to the wagon was opened – it was a covered cattle wagon or supply wagon or whatever. And we were just peeking out and we saw women running with baskets towards us, speaking in a foreign language and some of them in broken German. And I asked the Wehrmacht soldier who they were and he said, “Oh, I guess that’s your welcoming committee. They are Danish women running, I guess, with food for you.”
BERNSTEIN: So you were in Denmark then?
LEBEDUN: Yes, we were in Denmark. I am ahead of myself. The night before, on the border before the station, we walked about three miles towards – no, we were in the train and we were able to go out – they let us out to relieve ourselves, but they guarded us. And we saw the bombs flying over Hamburg. That was the last air raid we saw over Hamburg. The following morning when the women started running, we were allowed to go out of the wagon but they said to stay near the wagons, in the front.
And they came running and hugging us and we were telling them, “Please, we have lice. We are diseased.” And they were trying to communicate because they didn’t allow them to go too close but they were saying that 10 of us could accept what they were giving us. I looked up and there was a very beautiful tall and older woman, and I said, “I don’t know where we are. Are we in Germany?” “No, Dansk, Dansk, you are in Denmark. You crossed the border of Germany and you are free, you are free!” I said, “But we are sick and diseased, we are lousy.” And, in broken German she said, “I don’t care – take this basket. Divide it. How many are you? Divide it. We all heard that you were coming. Last night there was a men’s transport ahead of you.” I asked where they were going. She said, “Well, they left already towards one direction and you are going in another direction.” In her Danish-German, she tried to explain it to me. She gave me a huge basket and she handed it to me, and it was so heavy. And all 10 of us got baskets. She must have been the leader because ours was the first wagon and she said, “Now you make sure you go down the line and everybody gets some.” Chocolate, condensed milk – with a can opener so we can open it, bread – white, that Danish bread and butter and cheese.
BERNSTEIN: This was the first night?
LEBEDUN: The first morning after we crossed the border. And we just didn’t know what it meant but we still were not too sure because the German soldiers were with us. And she said to me, “Don’t give them (the Germans) a bite. Don’t give them a bite.”
BERNSTEIN: So were the Germans trying to order you around at all?
LEBEDUN: They said, “Just stay here and just 10 go out and accept the gifts they give you.”
Then I went inside the wagon and said, “O.K. girls, we have 10 baskets. We are going to slice the bread first and the cheese and then we’ll slice the goodies, the chocolate and the condensed milk.” And I said, “Please don’t eat too much chocolate or condensed milk because you will get sick. We are so starved and so hungry.”
In our wagon most of them listened. We divided the chocolate – we broke it. It was in those long bars. And the bread we broke because we didn’t have a knife to slice it with. The condensed milk had a funny taste because we didn’t have it for so many years. I took two sips and said to my sister, “Selma, don’t drink too much because you will get a stomachache and get cramps.” A couple of girls didn’t listen and ohhh were they sick! They were throwing up, they had cramps. And some of those who listened and used their heads were luckier.
When we got to our destination, it was a camp set up by the Red Cross. That night, when we got there, they just gave us herb tea. The Red Cross people waited for us, you know, in their uniforms, men and women, Danish, and we saw what happened with the Wehrmacht. They were in another barrack under guard, the Danish National Guard. Some of them spoke German and I asked what was going to happen to us. “Oh, you are free, you are free! We’ll just try to make you comfortable. We have white paper sheets and pillows stuffed with something.” You know the pillows – they were paper pillows. “Whoever needs help, just let us know.” And they came with aspirins for whoever had a headache, “Oh, you poor thing, you are so full of sores.” We had sores on our bodies. “Oh my God,” they looked at our hair and, “Oh my God. We cannot do anything for you here because you are going to a settlement camp where they will delouse you and check you over and then you will be put someplace where we will take care of you.”
BERNSTEIN: How did you feel during all this?
LEBEDUN: That night there was lots of crying going on – wailing, we were crying. We were about 25 in the barrack where I was. And she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You need help?” I guess we were moaning in our sleep. I said, “Oh, no,” and I jumped, “Oh, no, no, no, we are all right.” She said, “Oh, well good. Please tell them that we are here to help.”
They dressed our wounds and used some kind of a disinfectant to clean them.
BERNSTEIN: Did you bathe or shower?
LEBEDUN: We didn’t. They didn’t have the facilities for that. They just gave us first aid and a place to sleep that night. I remember in the morning we had to go to report how many were in our barracks, who was sick and who died. Thank God, nobody died on our barrack. But (SOBBING) when I came up to the front, I saw 45 white caskets lined up for the people who died overnight.
BERNSTEIN: From what they ate or…?
LEBEDUN: Just died.
BERNSTEIN: They were so worn down.
LEBEDUN: That noon we still didn’t think we were free and they were readying us to pull out and he said, “We are sorry that you have to walk two kilometers to the station where you are going to be put in nice wagons, in cars like normal people ride in (STILL CRYING) and we are going to pray for you that you should meet somebody in your family, some family survivors.” And they dressed our wounds again and we got food – I think we got tea again and we marched towards the station, and before we got to the station, there was sort of like a yard which was fenced, and I don’t know what they used it for, and as we were walking towards it. And they said we didn’t have to stay in rows but just to stay together and walk together. But we were so used to marching in rows and to the side of that yard I saw all of the Wehrmacht soldiers standing. Their guns had been taken away from them. And they were standing under guard and the Red Cross people had that group and they said, “You’d better stand in the rows like you were used to.” And they were giving us cream of wheat with milk and boiled chocolate and they said, “We’re going to have food for you towards the evening on the train – good food.”
BERNSTEIN: How many were you at that time?
LEBEDUN: I think there were about 1000 of us or so in our transport. There were many transports but the men’s transport and ours, we were the very first to come to this part of Denmark.
BERNSTEIN: Where in Denmark was this?
LEBEDUN: It was the southern part of Denmark. Germany and Denmark border on the northeastern part of Germany. I don’t know the town. I knew but I forgot. There was a service. They got a minister from the community to say a prayer over the caskets – white caskets. And during the day there were more. In the morning I said, “Oh my God, I can’t even count them.” So one of the Red Cross ladies said, “56.” And then there were more and more. By the time we left there were about 100 which died.
When we got to the station and were given food, they said, “There is a lot of it here left – milk and cream of wheat and tea. You eat as much as you want, but please don’t overeat because I know some of the girls were so sick from the chocolate previously.” We got so much chocolate and fruit – apples and pears.
BERNSTEIN: How was your strength?
LEBEDUN: I had a queasy stomach but we were pretty good in our corner of the world. We were standing after we ate and I said, “Please let’s not eat too much. We’d better not.” You know, you feel kind of half nauseous. So we asked if we could take a cup of milk with us on the train and they said it wouldn’t be necessary because when we board the train we would be given an herb tea and some preparation for your stomach and for your headaches and that we didn’t have to take anything. They told us, “You will be taken care of.” One of the Hungarian ladies said, “I don’t believe nothing like this will happen to us. We are not free.” I said, “Well, we’ll see, we’ll see.” They are all under guard. We are free. And suddenly she freaked out. She started screaming and threw herself on the ground and foam was coming out of her mouth. You should have seen how all the Red Cross men and women came running. They picked her up in their arms and carried her away. And I looked at her as they were picking her up, her hair turned white – we had more hair because they didn’t shave it on the marches and trips. Her hair turned just white! I would not believe it if I hadn’t seen it. Just in that span of about 15-20 minutes – it turned white!
BERNSTEIN: What happened to her?
LEBEDUN: I don’t know because she was from another wagon – another group and many of us started crying. And there came an order that the Wehrmacht soldiers were marched away under heavy guard with guns pointed at them.
I stood there and I was remembering the 23rd Psalm, you know – “Thou hast annointed my head with oil, my cup runneth over and…in front of my enemies” – you know. Every time I say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and I say it many times a day, I see that scene at the Danish place that they were feeding us and they were not feeding them, and they were under heavy guard. I just wished to see the SS under heavy guard – we were told they were under heavy guard also and that they would have to stand trial for atrocities.
When we got to the train – it was a pullman train with beautiful soft seats and they said we could stretch out or lay down. They asked us to sort of stay together so they can come through and help us. You know, some girls were sick to their stomachs. I was too, and we were headachy and all that. They gave us aspirin and some kind of a liquid for our stomachs, and they came ever so often asking, “Does anybody need help? Are you doing O.K.?” They were constantly going through the train and we were heading toward Malmo. Malmo is a port city in Denmark. “Malmo, what are we going to do in Malmo?” Well, the Swedish Red Cross was going to take care of us because the Swedes had no war and they could better care for us than in Denmark, foodwise and otherwise. “And how are we going to get to Sweden?” “On a big boat.”
BERNSTEIN: So you still have not showered or cleaned up?
LEBEDUN: No. And we came to Malmo, to the station, and there were lots of people around throwing candy and chocolate, and screaming, “We are so happy you are alive. Don’t die. Please don’t die now!” I guess they were told that some of us were dying. I don’t know why some of us were dying when we were freed. And they were shouting encouragement – some were better in German, some were in broken German.
We were taken into a big place and they said they were sorry that there were not enough chairs and benches but we were going through a boarding process and we would go to the harbor where a big boat was awaiting us to cross into Sweden. And sure enough, we went through that process and we came to that huge luxury boat and we went inside. Everything was beautiful, kind of maroon velvet – beautiful and clean. And they said, “Come on in, come on into the dining room. We’re going to eat. We’re going to give medication and then you are going to eat.” And the tables were set with white tablecloths and silverware.
BERNSTEIN: This is on the boat?
LEBEDUN: Yes, on the boat in Malmo. And we stopped and the captain was there saying, “Welcome, welcome, I welcome you.” And he said, “Why are you stopping?” And I said, “Oh, sir, we cannot go in this beautiful boat. We are so dirty and lousy.” And he and the other four in the front hugged us and they said, “We don’t care. (SOBBING) You are free and you are alive, and we thank God for it.”
Then, when we finally got into the dining halls, our group with some others were in the first class. (STILL SOBBING) There were over 1000 of us and they fitted us in the dining room wherever they could. Waiters came and the Red Cross people came and gave us two pills and told us, “Please take the two pills with water right away,” and then the waiters came and they served clear broth and I think it must have been white chicken or something plain. I don’t remember what kind of a vegetable – I think it was carrots they served – good food. And we had a sponge cake for dessert. We had all the seltzer water we wanted to drink, but no milk. And the waiters came, “Would you like something else? Would you like coffee?” We had tea and seltzer water and they came and asked, “Does that taste good? Would you like a little more?” And one said, “Are you having trouble cutting the meat? I’ll cut it for you.” They went from table to table and it was very funny to eat that way after all those years. And the chairs were so comfortable and I looked all around us, (SOBBING) and we were eating with tears in our eyes. And they said, “No, no, no crying anymore. You are free and you are alive.” Before we started eating, the captain said a benediction to God, you know. He welcomed us aboard and, “We’ll try to make you comfortable as much as we can. Anything you need, just let us know. We are here to help you and serve you.” And the waiters were so nice. They were bending over us and patting our cheeks, and I said, “Oh, please don’t come so close. We have lice.” So he said, “Well, the Germans did bad things, and we have a way to clean ourselves up. Don’t worry, don’t worry. When you leave, we’ll fumigate the boat, the whole boat. We are glad we can be of service.”
When we got to Sweden, again so many of us died and we were taken to a school wehre they had those huge tubs with warm water, and the Red Cross people took over again. There was something in the water – I guess to disinfect us, and they put a special thing in our hair to disinfect our hair. Everywhere we had hair, they sprayed a special thing from a squeegee bottle and they said, “Cover your eyes. We don’t want to get it in your eyes.” And they cleaned our eyes and cleaned our ears and after we were bathed, we got a huge towel. I can’t explain to you how it felt. We had cots to sleep on and there were about 25 in my group. They gave us a radio so we could listen to the news and we were told that the war was unofficially over.

Tape 7 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: When you crossed the border…
LEBEDUN: When we crossed the border and when we were sleeping that night, across Germany, so many of us died. That was the last air raid by the Allied. And when we were driving in the train towards Malmo to go to Sweden, the war was over unofficially. And that was the first of April, 1945. When we got to Sweden, that was the third, I think. And that’s when they were bathing and cleaning us up. (END OF SESSION)
BERNSTEIN: This is session five. The date is April 10, 1986.
Can you tell me something about the Swedish Red Cross?
LEBEDUN: They were wonderful to us. They worked with us, they bathed us, they cleaned us up and we got two sets of underwear and two pairs of socks. And we got a dress and a coat.
BERNSTEIN: The last time we talked, you were already dealing with the Swedish Red Cross then?
BERNSTEIN: O.K. So they gave each of you clothing…
LEBEDUN: And they were cooking for us and feeding us. We were housed in a huge school – I think it was an elementary school. The superintendent of the school in that town was in charge of us. And that was a small town, but the people were beautiful. At first they were kind of distant. They didn’t know what to make of us. And since the tempo of a Slavic language or a Hungarian language is completely different than the tempo of a Scandinavian language, they always looked when we spoke to one another, “Are you fighting, are you fighting?” Because it’s just so different. “No, no, we are not fighting. We are just talking.” And they brought us a big radio and we listened to the Red Cross who announced who survived and who was saved and where they were. And we were like glued to the news. They also got doctors from a well-known research hospital in Stockholm to come and check us over emotionally, physically and all that. They asked us questions and I just couldn’t listen to it. I got hysterical, every time I ran out of the room. I just couldn’t because I felt that nobody would understand what we went through. I did not suspect that they were asking us questions because they were inquisitive but I just felt that nobody would be able to understand. The horror we went through and the misery we saw cannot be put to words.
I went on for close to two weeks and one of the lady doctors who came every other day to talk to us – one time she ran after me and she said, “I would like to talk to you just for a little bit.” She spoke very good German with a little accent, you know, but she spoke good German. And I said, “No, you are just going to question me. Leave me alone. I do not want to talk about it.” So she said, “No, I just want to ask you other things, and let’s go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I just want to talk to you.” So, she started asking me where I was from, what schooling I had, my relationship with my parents and my siblings, if I came from a large family, etc., etc. And that day she didn’t ask anything more.
Two days later when she came and I was standing in the back of the room. They started again asking about experiences. “Someone else tell your experiences and how you feel now about it.” So, I just ran out. After the session, she found me again. There was a huge yard and it was still not – kind of sleepy in April when we were in Sweden. But there was a bench and the yard belonged to the superintendent of schools who was in charge of us. Somehow he singled me out and he took me to his home. He was a widower and he had his sister-in-law taking care of his household and children. His wife died having the last baby, I think. He never remarried. He said Ellen could use some help and I could use some different companionship than I had with the girls I was with in the concentration camp. He tried to talk to me. He didn’t speak too well German, but by that time I was able to communicate in Swedish a little bit. He asked why I could not listen when they were trying to help us and that it would be better for me. I told him I just didn’t want to talk about it because nobody understands. Nobody will ever understand because there are no words in any language to describe what we went through.
So, a couple of days later, when she found me, I was in his yard sitting on the bench. I guess I was crying. I noticed her when she sat down next to me. Then she put her arms around me and was just hugging me, and she let me cry. And then she said, “Although you said there were no words to describe, we still are trying to feel for you, for all of you, what you went through. And since you survived, wouldn’t you like to live a full life, a life without having emotional problems? You’re never going to be free of feelings, but you will be able to live a little easier since God let you live. Don’t you want to be freer? And when you talk about it, it will not be a burden inside of you.”
I had said I hated the Germans! “I hate them for what they did to us, I hate how they dehumanized us and I hate that we were so powerless to do anything and nobody else cared!”
Then she said, “You know, hate never builds, it destroys. And the hate doesn’t destroy the one you have the hate directed towards, but it destroys the one who hates. Think about it.”
And little by little, I stayed on and little by little, I started talking to her first and then I joined in the conversation of others. And I found a very profound statement in her words about hate reaction. And I just made up my mind that I was not going to hate and destroy myself.
BERNSTEIN: Did you go to a displaced person’s camp?
LEBEDUN: No. We stayed in Sweden and could have remained there. In the meantime, they sent representatives of our respective governments to talk to us. They said we could go back if we wanted to. We had a Czechoslovakian attache, or somebody from the Czechoslovakian consulate from Stockholm talk with us. Then there was a Hungarian and a Dutch and French. That’s what kind of milieu we were in, in that particular town and from that particular transport.
There were two big schools in the place where we were housed. I was in number one and the others were in number two. And they said if we wanted to go home to Czechoslovakia, we could go home, and that the government would help us get back any property we had, and we were thinking what to do. They knew we couldn’t make up our minds right away, so they left it open. They said that whenever we felt physically and emotionally able, we should contact them as to our future plans.
In the meantime, unbeknown to me, somehow due to all the physical deprivation and all the fevers I had, I knew my uncle’s name and I knew he lived in the West Bronx, but I forgot the address and I used to write to him frequently before the trouble started. I knew I had an aunt living in Brooklyn and I knew her name. I knew I had a cousin living some place in Mexico City, but I didn’t know the addresses. I didn’t know if my other cousin, Annie, was saved or not, but she was the one who saw my sister’s name in the Red Cross papers, and her sister from Mexico had already contacted her – she found out where she was. She went to Prague and was looking for her husband, my other cousin, the younger one. My older cousin, her sister, contacted her that she is making papers for her to come to Mexico, but she didn’t want to go until she found out what happened to her husband. She was looking for him. She received information from a good source that he had been taken to the Russian front from Hungary, and somebody saw him after liberation. They had decided that if they survived, they would meet in Prague because he had some distant relative there and I don’t know what else as to details. Lotty, her sister, contacted Annie, “Whenever you find your husband, I have papers for you both. I had to do it because they are going to close the quota. There are too many refugees coming to different places and certain governments had to assign quotas.”
My cousin, Annie, saw my sister’s name in one of the Red Cross papers. I was there too, but she didn’t know that in the meantime I had married and I carried my husband’s name. And Annie got in touch with her sister in Mexico City, and in the Red Cross paper there was also information about who to contact if you find someone. So, my cousin, Annie, sent the information to my cousin, Lotty, in Mexico. Then Lotty sent a telegram that she was overjoyed that my sister was alive. And she asked many questions, “What happened to your sister, what happened to your parents, what happened to my parents, what happened to our aunts? Letter follows. Under no circumstances should you go back to Czechoslovakia.”
So, a couple of weeks later we got the letter and as to our not going back to Czechoslovakia she wrote, “Things are not going to be good there, you have nobody there. I contacted an aunt and uncle in New York and they are going to start working on papers there too, to bring you to the United States because the quota from Czechoslovakia to Mexico is closed. This will be the fastest way to get you out of Sweden so you can be with us again. As soon as the Mexican quota opens, and you are in the States, if you want to go to Mexico, I’ll take you there.”
And, you see, there is an element of – how should I say – not fate – shixom. How is shixom in English? It just has to be. Things sometimes develop which nobody has any choice to change them – not fate. I come to it maybe later.
BERNSTEIN: Then you did register after the war, and your names were on this list.
LEBEDUN: Yes. We registered that we had come from Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovakian government then gave the Red Cross, requested of every government.
BERNSTEIN: How did you look for your family?
LEBEDUN: We couldn’t look for them because I didn’t have any addresses. For my immediate family, I knew what happened to them but I thought maybe my father’s brother was saved.
BERNSTEIN: What about your father?
LEBEDUN: My father could not have survived because they took him. Who knows what happened to him? He was not on any of the lists.
BERNSTEIN: He never came up on any list…
LEBEDUN: And I found out what happened to my husband. They were trying to escape. The Germans called it “flitzen” – escape from the camp. And there were three German high ranking officers who wanted to take them over to the underground and they wanted to escape from there too, but somebody betrayed them – another Jew who was excluded because he wasn’t liked, and he betrayed them. That’s what hurt always the most, when Jews betrayed Jews.
BERNSTEIN: How did you find that out?
LEBEDUN: Through Katja, through another man, and then she authenticated it.
BERNSTEIN: Was this after it was all over?
LEBEDUN: No, it was during the time I was in Auschwitz. There was a new group who came to the men’s camp, and one of them who came to our camp to check the light – the little light we had, started talking. And he said, “Slovakia – I was together with somebody from Slovakia. There were lots of Slovakians, about 600 of them.” I said, “What happened to them?” He said, “They were shot.” “Oh, my God – why were they shot?” He replied, “If you are strong enough, I will tell you, but if you are going to cry they will see us and we will have trouble.” And I said I was strong enough. Then he told me that they were planning to escape to the underground and somebody betrayed them and they were shot together with three SS men. He distinctly remembered my husband. I told him his name and he said, “Of course.” He said he was in charge of the barrack which distributed clothing.
BERNSTEIN: With three SS men?
LEBEDUN: Yes, the three SS men who were planning to escape.
BERNSTEIN: Why would SS men help them?
LEBEDUN: They wanted to escape from there too, I guess. And they were all shot.
BERNSTEIN: And you never heard anything about your father?
LEBEDUN: When I asked Katja if she would be able to find out through her grapevine if that really happened in Lublin, and she found out that it did. And I asked her to check what happened to my father. And she said, “Hilda, none of the men who came then survived, neither my father nor others survived.” And I never knew if he was sent to a work unit or he was sent to a gas chamber. Sometimes I just want to think that he went to a gas chamber because the work units were very bad, for men especially.
BERNSTEIN: But he was a big man…
LEBEDUN: No, he wasn’t a big man, he was a little guy but wiry and strong.
BERNSTEIN: From your description, I thought that because he was strong, he was also big.
LEBEDUN: He was a little man.
In the same camp where I was in Auschwitz, I don’t know if you heard of Ammalah who escaped and then she was tortured and shot. I knew her personally. She was the liaison between the prisoners.
LEBEDUN: Ammalah – Malcah, a Polish girl, beautiful – tall. She didn’t look Jewish at all. She had a peaches and cream complexion and she had hair like you and they left her hair. She lived in a separate barrack because she and the SS were always together, and especially when we got the typhoid epidemic. They were so afraid for their lives, “Don’t go near the prisoners, don’t go near the prisoners!”
BERNSTEIN: She was Jewish?
LEBEDUN: Yes, she was Jewish.
BERNSTEIN: She stayed with the SS?
LEBEDUN: She didn’t stay with the SS but she had a barrack on her own where she lived and she kept count of all the prisoners, kept the books, kept records, and Katja was one of the lesser helpers to her. She had a special name. She was a laufer and that means she was the contact between the prisoners and the SS.
LEBEDUN: Malcah.
BERNSTEIN: And she had special privileges?
LEBEDUN: Yes. She used to come many times at night. When she found some wood, she used to smuggle wood to us. We had stoves there, but there was not enough wood to heat them. She used to organize potatoes and she brought a little piece of a grater from the kitchen and we grated them and made potato latkes at night. We would post a guard in our barrack. My barrack was behind walls.
BERNSTEIN: This was where?
LEBEDUN: In Auschwitz.
She was so beautiful.
BERNSTEIN: How did she get that job?
LEBEDUN: She spoke very good German and she had college education.
BERNSTEIN: You felt like your languages helped you all?
LEBEDUN: Oh yes.
BERNSTEIN: What languages did you speak?
LEBEDUN: Hungarian and German and Slovakian, but my German especially helped me. The thing I didn’t speak Yiddish helped me.
BERNSTEIN: Why is that?
LEBEDUN: Because they hated to hear Yiddish spoken. They said that it defaced their German language – their beautiful language we defaced! De verfrucht…
BERNSTEIN: And that means?
LEBEDUN: It means, the God damned, lousy, dirty Jews are getting to our language, our beautiful language, the German language.
BERNSTEIN: How much do you think you weighed when you were liberated?
LEBEDUN: I think I weighed between 60 and 70 lbs. You see, kilos are different from pounds here.
BERNSTEIN: Between 60 and 70 kilos.
LEBEDUN: In Sweden we got a little mirror and a comb and a brush and a toothbrush, a soap dish and soap. I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Oh my God, is this me?” Holes for eyes – they were so sunken in. The bones were sticking out.
BERNSTEIN: How long do you think it took you to gain back the weight?
LEBEDUN: Oh about seven months or so. I was lucky. I wasn’t too sick and neither was my sister. She started having tooth problems and then I started having tooth problems. Little by little, everybody got tooth problems. Our teeth just crumbled due to malnutrition and we had bad things happen there too. A couple of the girls took so sick and died. My friend, Joan, tried to kill herself.
BERNSTEIN: Tell me about that.
LEBEDUN: It is so funny what we saved from Auschwitz. I told you about the little piece of soap I saved. And that soap was made out of human.
BERNSTEIN: And you saved that piece of soap? Why?
LEBEDUN: I don’t know, I just got attached to that piece of soap, like this would be something – like another human which I carried with me.
BERNSTEIN: Where did you put it?
LEBEDUN: I hit it underneath my armpit when they were checking us. They were not checking us too well when we had to leave so fast Westfalia to go to the transport, when the SS turned over our commandos to the Wehrmacht. One of the girls who worked in the ammunition factory in Westfalia was a beautiful artist and she made me a rosebud of a piece of tin she got there in the factory. It was a beautiful rosebud with two leaves. She said, “A memory for me.” She got sick and died.
BERNSTEIN: She died in Sweden?
BERNSTEIN: You saved the rosebud?
BERNSTEIN: Do you still have the soap?
Somehow, Joan got some arsenic and she used to hide it. I never asked her where she hid it.
BERNSTEIN: You knew she had it?
LEBEDUN: I didn’t know she had it because when I used to say, “Oh please don’t touch my soap and my rosebud.” And a comb she made for me which my sister and I used – we didn’t have combs. It was made out of tin.
BERNSTEIN: How long did you keep that soap?
LEBEDUN: When I got to New York, I carried the soap with me and I didn’t tell anyone about the soap. But then when we couldn’t stay with our aunt and my uncle found a lady for us to room with who was married to a Hungarian who had died. She was alone. We shared the kitchen and she had two bedrooms so my sister and I had one bedroom. She was very nice to us. She shopped for us and we were working already – my sister and I – in a factory which made undershirts for the government, for soldiers – the tee shirts, athletic shirts. One day we were sitting and talking and I felt very close. Her name was Mrs. Shrine. I said, “You know, I have this piece of soap which I brought with me.” Because she asked, “Is it true that they made soap out of the bodies which were burning in the crematorium?” I said, “Yes, we didn’t know it at first, but then we found out and I have a little piece.”
BERNSTEIN: So you told her you had a little piece of the soap?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And she said, “Oh, my God, I have to ask the rabbi what we are going to do with that soap. If it was from a human, it has to be buried, to have a funeral.” And I said, “Mrs. Shrine, didn’t I tell you that this is my precious thing?”

Tape 7 - Side 2 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: So you told her that it was very precious to you?
LEBEDUN: Yes. “And I did not get rid of it, I cannot lose it.” And she said, “Mein kind, my child, you’ve got to give it up. You are free now and I’m going to ask the rabbi what to do with it.”
She came home one day from work and we sat down to eat – she always ate with us – she cooked for us and didn’t charge for it, but we gave her money. We were working and we gave her money to buy food. On weekends, she liked the chicken soup I cooked for us. So she said, “I have bad news. Before you go to work tomorrow morning, I must have that soap. I have this cloth for it and we have to put it inside, and I have to bring it to the rabbi. He’s going to bury it and say Kaddish over it.” And I said, “But, Mrs. Shrine, I can’t give it up!” She said, “You have to give it up.” I cried bitter tears. It was more precious to me than anything and then my sister came into the bedroom and said, “Hilda, maybe you saved it so the rabbi could say Kaddish. We couldn’t say Kaddish for our parents or anyone we loved and for the multitude which died, and maybe this is the remains of some of them and maybe they are going to be buried. So maybe that will be their only grave.”
BERNSTEIN: So what did you think?
LEBEDUN: I said to my sister, “You know what a hard time I had bringing it over.” She said, “Well, maybe it wasn’t without reason.” So, I gave it to her. I slept with it under the pillow in that cloth the rabbi gave me and in the morning I gave it to her, and it was buried and they were saying Kaddish for it. They had a minyan and they were saying Kaddish for the soap.
That’s how Joan saved her arsenic and she was just so depressed. We were very depressed and they tried so much to help us in Sweden. It’s like we were freed and life had no meaning. What were we going to do? We had no one who loved us. We were left alone. It was my sister and me but most of them were just alone. Joan had four brothers and she was the only girl. None of her brothers survived. They were tall, beautiful, husky.
BERNSTEIN: So she found out that nobody had survived?
LEBEDUN: Nobody had survived and she just wanted to die. We saw her fiance dying when we were in Gross Rosen. We saw him through the fence.
BERNSTEIN: And he was very weak then?
LEBEDUN: Very weak then. He recognized her, you know, from the distance, and she recognized him. She was sick then and she almost ran to the barbed wire and I restrained her. Luckily, the next day, we left – I couldn’t watch her all the time. In Sweden I came from the superintendent’s house – something told me to go back and look for something. I was looking for some kind of a piece of paper. I asked my sister, “Selma, where is Joan?” She said, “Hilda, she was here a while ago. I don’t know where she went.” I asked how Joan was doing and my sister said, “She was crying and I got sick and tired of listening to her cry. I tried to talk to her and talk to her – I got sick and tired of her crying and she just wouldn’t listen to me. She told me to leave her alone. So, I went to the Red Cross nurse and told her. And I saw her later talking to Joan, and then she left.”
So, I went looking for Joan and – no Joan. We looked everywhere. And something told me to go to the bathroom which were outhouses – kind of kept nicely, but outhouses. And I banged on the door and it was locked. There was no answer. I called and screamed her name – I knew she must be there. There was a little space between the ground and the door and I got close to it and saw her shoe. I started screaming – “Get help, get help, get Papa Olstrom!” He was the man in charge of us, the superintendent of schools. He came and brought a screwdriver and hammer and an axe. He said, “What is going on?” I said, “Joan is in there and I know something is wrong with her because she doesn’t answer.” He quickly chopped the door down and there she was, slumped on the seat with black foam on her mouth. We immediately got the nurse and they called the ambulance and started working on her. They pumped her stomach and she was “out of it” for hours and hours and hours. All night she was delirious. Finally, at two – three o’clock, she started to talk deliriously. They wanted me to stay with the two nurses with her. I held her hand and squeezed it. I talked to her, “Joan, you’ve got to hear me, you’ve got to hear me! Pull out of this. What did you do to yourself?” I slept for a couple of hours with my head on the bed where she was. Then in the morning, they came with the ambulance and took her to a larger city to another hospital. I went with her. She mumbled to me, “I’m not going any place without you. You saved my life, you saved my life. Why did you save my life? I want to die, I want to die, I want to die!” All through the ambulance ride she kept saying, “I want to die, I want to die, I want to die! Why did you save me? I want to die!”
After she was checked in, I came back with the two nurses by train, and I felt so bad. I cried all the way back. They said that if I had not been looking for her, she would have died in 10 more minutes and unable to be resusitated.
BERNSTEIN: Is she okay now?
LEBEDUN: She married very well in New York. She came to New York before we did. She had a very good cousin who saw her name on one of the lists and was immediately working with her aunt, her father’s sister. She came to New York and went personally to our aunt and uncle to suggest that they work fast to get us out. We were in trouble with our aunt and our cousin hated us because we helped her mother, and she said, “Since the girls came, I have no mother or father, only the girls count.” She wasn’t nice to her parents, my cousin, the one in New York who was my aunt’s daughter.
BERNSTEIN: You said before that you would have stayed in Sweden. How did you come to the United States?
LEBEDUN: Our relatives got affidavits to bring us out.
BERNSTEIN: Did you want to come to the United States?
LEBEDUN: No. I wanted to come to the United States but my sister didn’t want to. But, after the war, I just could not marry a non-Jew. I had good chances to be married in Sweden and I just couldn’t.
BERNSTEIN: How long did you stay in Sweden?
LEBEDUN: Two years.
BERNSTEIN: It took that long to get the papers and all?
BERNSTEIN: So how did that evolve? Did you write these aunts and uncles or did they find you?
LEBEDUN: My cousin wrote to them immediately. Remember, I told you that she said I shouldn’t go back to Czechoslovakia under any circumstances, no repatriation to Czechoslovakia.
BERNSTEIN: Right. She had seen your name on one of the lists.
LEBEDUN: Because I was always the writer in the family, I wrote to her, “I am alive. I got married and he is dead and everybody is dead except for my sister and me and two lesser cousins, more distant cousins which were alive.” It was just unthinkable that I would never see my mother, my father and my brothers. It was a terrible, terrible time in Sweden, and they tried to be so nice to us. I came from a very, very close family. I had aunts in Europe which were very close and I had two uncles in this country and two other aunts. My mother never wanted to come to this country. Her sister came one time for a visit and she bought her a ticket, and she just wouldn’t leave her parents. My mother was the one who lived the closest to my grandparents and every time I had a little time off from school, I hopped on the train and I was at my grandmother’s and one of my aunts lived there. We were just extremely close with my mother and my father and my brothers.
BERNSTEIN: So that she would not have considered leaving at that point. While you were in Sweden, what did you do for those two years?
LEBEDUN: After a while we found jobs.
BERNSTEIN: What kind of jobs?
LEBEDUN: At first it was a factory where they made – what did they make there? I don’t even remember anymore. Either handbags or billfolds. My sister went to work there. I worked there for a couple of days but then Papa Olstrom wanted me to stay in the compound because of all the girls I learned the fastest to communicate in Swedish. I’m very good with languages and I said to my sister, “You don’t have to go to work.” She said, “But I want to. Most of the time you are at Papa Olstrom’s.” I said, “Well, you can come too, you were invited.” She said, “No, I feel comfortable where I am.” I didn’t. I looked at the faces of the girls we were together, and every face showed a different pain. The things which I am telling you was my experience, how I felt. But the pain is almost the same as everybody else had. We are different people but the pain is felt the same, even though it comes in degrees, like everything else. There were unanswered questions in my head, “Why?”, and I brooded a lot. So when Papa Olstrom wanted me to come to his house and help and befriend his daughter and his two sons, I was glad he did it.
BERNSTEIN: Why do you think he wanted you to befriend his daughter and two sons?
LEBEDUN: Because he kind of saw that I was very sensitive and I was brooding too much, and I had such a hard time relating my experiences. Also, I loved music, and he used to play his records of arias, opera and symphonies. I grew up on that music. My father used to bring them from Prague. The record player we had to crank up – “His master’s voice.” That was how we went to sleep every night. When we behaved, even if my father wasn’t home, my mother put the record on and we’d say, “Mother, the record player needs to be cranked up. Can I get up?” “No, I’ll do it. You just stay in bed.”
There were a couple of other girls who came to his house whenever they wanted to. They had two Finnish orphans living with them at that time, young ones, one was Maria Elena. I never will forget them. I got sick, like I had in Sweden, about three months after we got there. I got a urinary tract infection and female infection. My ovaries were inflamed – we had a lot of it. And the room was partitioned off for us at the sick bay, and every morning those two sweet Finnish kids used to come with flowers – beautiful flowers – to the window and call my name. “We brought you a flower, dear and sweet friend…”
BERNSTEIN: So you actually were living with them then?
LEBEDUN: No, that was still in the compound. I didn’t sleep there.
BERNSTEIN: Did you stay at that compound the two years that you were in Sweden?
LEBEDUN: No. We were in the compound for not quite a year and then…
BERNSTEIN: The Red Cross Compound?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And we found jobs. Some of the girls stayed in the factory and moved to…, that was the city where the hospital was and where the factory was. Papa Olstrom had a very dear friend who knew this person in Stockholm and he was a frequent visitor to this country. He was the head of the United Nations library in New York. He was a Ph. D. and very revered man at this university in Stockholm. They were middle aged and they were willing to accept a refugee to live in their home. Papa Olstrom said, “Do you really want to leave Sweden and leave this? I can get you a position there because I know that person.” And I said, “Well, I cannot go without my sister.” He said, “Don’t worry, once you are out of here, they will accept her too.” So I got to Stockholm but when I got so sick they wanted to do surgery on me and I screamed, “I do not want surgery, I do not want surgery!” They then decided to give me a chance with medication to get well. I did get well with medication, but the O.B. man said that I would always have problems with that ovary, and I did. It didn’t get inflamed, but it didn’t function too well. It got better when I got pregnant. They told me that pregnancy is different hormonally, the balance different.
And I was lucky. I could have been poisoned. We were all lucky, some of us. Some of us were not so lucky.
BERNSTEIN: How could you have been poisoned?
LEBEDUN: Inside. There were no facilities for hygiene or anything.
BERNSTEIN: How was communication done after the war? Was it on the phone or through letters?
LEBEDUN: Through letters.
When I went to Stockholm, first I came to another family and they were outside of Stockholm while the other was pending because they had to go through clearance. The Swedes were very thorough and they wanted to be sure we were going to be treated well until we decided if we wanted to stay in Sweden, which was our choice, or we wanted to go elsewhere – in the rest of the world. So, I got to that place. It was outside of Stockholm and they had two kids, a little baby 18 months and a little boy five years old. The father was a president of a bank in Stockholm. I helped the mother with the baby. They had a cook and a maid to clean. And the baby started loving me and the baby wouldn’t go to sleep when somebody else wanted to put it to sleep.
I had a day off every two weeks and I used to ride into Stockholm with this man, the bank president, and visit my friend overnight. The following day in the afternoon, I met him at his bank, and he brought me back with him. When I came home, the little one used to run to me and hug me. And she said, “She (the baby) didn’t sleep last night when you were not at home.”
I think I was there about three months – two months? Winter time, and I used to go by choice every morning about a kilometer away from the home. They had a beautiful home where they lived while their townhouse was being rebuilt in Stockholm. For milk I wanted to go, I loved the walk, the solitude through the forest and I somehow replenished my strength, or something. I missed my sister terribly. In the meantime, I got clearance to go to Stockholm. Everybody came to Stockholm and they didn’t like it. In the meantime, my friend who used to work in that place where I was working then – after she was coming to this country, and that’s how I got to know the lady and the man. Also, Papa Olstrom knew him through a friend and when it was time for Joan to leave, they wanted me to come and stay there until I could come to this country. And I said, “Well, there is just one hitch, I have a sister still in Bredaryd, and I want her with me.” “Oh, of course, of course, I wish we had known it before. We’ll work on it right away.” And it took two weeks for my sister to join me. Then it was a little easier.
BERNSTEIN: What did she do there?
LEBEDUN: She got a job – I don’t even remember what she did. It was some kind of a factory but very light work.
BERNSTEIN: This was in Stockholm. Where were you before Stockholm?
LEBEDUN: In Bredaryd, a small town in southern Sweden. When we left Malmo, we came to Helsingborg and from there they distributed us to different parts of southern Sweden and we wound up in Bredaryd.
BERNSTEIN: Did you come on a boat to the United States?
LEBEDUN: Yes. I think it took a week. I never will forget that first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. It was early in the morning and I told the steward – it was a Swedish boat – Drukning Home was the name from Gorteburg. We came from the port city in Sweden to New York Harbor. I spoke Swedish so well, so when I told the steward to wake me up please because I wanted to see the Statue of Liberty when we passed it. About a day and a half out of New York, we were in a terrible storm in the North Sea. Everybody was sick and my sister and I started to get sick. There was a very old man from Slovakia on that crossing to visit his daughter, “for the last time,” he told me. He had brandy with him. When I came to see him (he spoke only Slovakian and was very old – about 80) and check on whether he needed anything because I used to work with the nurse on the boat, and he said, “You look so peaked.” And I said, “Oh, I feel so bad!” And he said, “You’re not going to feel bad.” He had a little schnapps glass and he said, “Drink it down, that’s Slivowitz, a very potent brandy made out of a certain berry, and he said, “Every morning here…” And I said, “But my sister is sick too and others are sick.” He said, “I can’t supply everyone, but I’ll give you some for your sister.”
I came back to our cabin and told Selma, “You swallow this if you don’t want to be seasick.” When we came to the dining room, even half of the crew was sick. We were sitting and eating, the few of us who were not seasick, and whatever wasn’t nailed down was moving. Even the things that were nailed down were popping up in that very rough sea. But, like a miracle, just when we were nearing New York Harbor, it subsided and I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty and I never did go up to it when I lived in New York for two years, for some reason.
BERNSTEIN: What did you feel when you saw the Statue of Liberty?
LEBEDUN: We were crying. There were many people of other nationalities and not just Jews crossing to this country. And I met a young man with his brother and his wife. His wife was pregnant. They were living in a D.P. camp in Germany and they had two very wealthy brothers in Argentina, where they were going. They had so much jewelry with them, oh God!
BERNSTEIN: They had been in a D.P. camp?
LEBEDUN: They had been in a D.P. camp and they smuggled themselves back to Czechoslovakia to Karpatho-Ukraine and they buried their jewelry there. So the brother who lost his family went back to Czechoslovakia and found the jewelry which he then brought back to Germany.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take for the strangeness of Sweden to go away? You know, you felt like people were looking at you and…
LEBEDUN: Oh, a long time, a long time. They did not think of us as Jews really, because there were Jews in Sweden and very wealthy Jews. What bothered us the most was that not even one visited the D.P. camps when we were in Sweden.
BERNSTEIN: But you were not in a D.P. camp?
LEBEDUN: Well, it was a camp in Sweden. It wasn’t called a D.P. camp, but that’s really what it was. And none of the Jews visited. When we were in Stockholm we used to meet once a month in one of the halls around Stockholm, the few which were living in Stockholm. My sister and I went among them and others who were from the vicinity of Stockholm. I remember when a Swedish lady told me, “We have so many rich people from your faith (they didn’t say ‘Jews’).” But not even one offered their help. They didn’t want to be bothered, they just wanted to be left alone. That was my experience but what happened afterwards, I don’t know.
BERNSTEIN: These were people who hadn’t been in camps, they just didn’t want to be bothered?
LEBEDUN: They were safe in Sweden. The Danish Jews were not safe because Denmark was occupied. Victor Borge was smuggled through the sound to Sweden and not by Jews. Some Swedes saved him, not the Swedish Jews. I don’t understand the phenomenon. It’s by yenum – that’s what the Polish girls used to say.
BERNSTEIN: What does that mean?
LEBEDUN: It means, “This bad thing is happening to someone else.” And I could not understand why.
BERNSTEIN: I remember you saying that you ran into someone in New York, a man, on a street corner somewhere and he said he had been trying to find you and your name wasn’t on any of the lists. What list was he talking about?
LEBEDUN: Well, he didn’t know that I was married and he was looking for my maiden name.
BERNSTEIN: O.K. Your married name was on those lists.
I had asked you if you were aware of any sexual involvement in the camps like the SS with the women. You answered that and later I thought of another question.
LEBEDUN: That was a racial shame, being involved with an “inferior race.” Anyone who was caught was severely punished and we never knew what happened to them.
BERNSTEIN: My other question was whether or not there was any sexual involvement of women with women.
LEBEDUN: Not with Jews. The Germans were.
BERNSTEIN: Like the prisoners?
LEBEDUN: Yes. That was the first time I knew of lesbianism. I never knew before. When we were in upper Silesia, in the camp…

Tape 8 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: Let’s talk about appearance first of all. You know what that was like, to be able to take pride in your appearance after you were able to return to life.
LEBEDUN: When we came to Sweden and they cleaned and deloused us, gave us a dress and underwear, stockings and shoes and a coat because it was still cold. It was the beginning of May and still cold in Sweden. We were housed in a school and there were showers on the side where there was gym and lockers with mirrors. But even before we got to that, some of the windows in the hallway were open and we could see ourselves in those windows, and it was a very bad sight. “Oh my God, is that me?” They took snapshots of us, how we looked naked and how we looked when we were dressed. They showed us those pictures and I couldn’t believe. There were just holes in my face, my eyes were sunk so deep, and we were so bony and skinny.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take to get an appearance that you felt good about?
LEBEDUN: It took a while. When we started eating normally and we loved bread – Europe likes bread. At first we couldn’t get used to the sweet bread which the Danes and Swedes baked. They had dark bread but it was with molasses and it was made with honey and molasses, or both. That was a sweet bread but we were glad to have it. But we blew up like a balloon, we put on so much weight. We also got spending money from the Swedish Red Cross and we could buy things. And when we went to the store, they charged us less. We bought yarn to make sweaters and those who knew how to knit or crochet taught the ones who didn’t know. They gave us sewing machines at our disposal, so whoever could sew would do so. My friend sewed for me and my sister because I didn’t know how to sew. The first thing we made with the money they gave us was a very small checked black and white skirt. Then we bought a blouse and black material and made a bolero type top. I still have the pictures someplace. With the next allowance, we went to buy shoes.
BERNSTEIN: What were you wearing in the meantime?
LEBEDUN: They gave us a pair of shoes but they were just kind of everyday shoes, so we went to buy a little dressier shoe. And that was a problem but we finally got a pair of shoes – I don’t remember – were they black?
BERNSTEIN: Why was it a problem?
LEBEDUN: To fit the sizes. We were not the sizes like we’d been before. It was just a different size.
BERNSTEIN: You said that with the breads and all, you got fat?
LEBEDUN: Well, with the normal food and bread, and they also cooked creamed stuff, and we were just eating a lot. We were hungry, we were starved. And it’s funny that some of the girls were still hiding pieces of bread under their pillows, and we just gained too much weight. Within six months we were twice the size or more than when we arrived there.
BERNSTEIN: Did you get into any habits or patterns of not wanting to leave food on your plate because you were so used to…
LEBEDUN: Oh, of course!
BERNSTEIN: You’d eat everything that was there?
LEBEDUN: Oh yes, and then some. We could go for more. And when it was something with gravy, we just left a piece of bread for the gravy to clean it up.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take to be able to leave food on your plate, or is that something you still can’t do to this day?
LEBEDUN: Oh, a long time, and up to this day I serve myself small servings because I cannot waste anything. If I want a little more – my husband always serves more – and I say, “Please don’t serve me so much. I hate to throw out food.” Up to this day I just cannot see food being wasted.
BERNSTEIN: Was that anything you remember from before you were in the camps? Was that something in your home when you were growing up, your parents not wanting to waste food? Or was this a reaction to what went on in camps?
LEBEDUN: Sometimes…mother didn’t serve, but it was on the table and we could take our own food. She always said, “Don’t take too much on your plates because food is not nice to be wasted.” So, part of it was a learned thing, that one doesn’t waste food, and part of it was from the hunger and deprivation we went through, either not having anything or not enough – mostly not enough. We knew how miserable and bad it was and how rotten it tasted. But it just wasn’t enough.
BERNSTEIN: What was it like to have a name instead of a number, to be a person instead of a non-person?
LEBEDUN: Well, it took a while to respond to the name, to the family name, because in camp we called ourselves by the name, you know, Hilda or whatever…
BERNSTEIN: And you were using your name from your first marriage then?
LEBEDUN: Yes. But to respond to the full name, “Oh, they are calling me, that’s me!” It took a while to get used to it. That was very strange at first, but after a while, we responded to it. Then after they saw how we blew up and the doctors came and checked us, first every week and then once a month and once in two months. The doctors said, “Oh my God, the girls gained too much weight, and that’s not so good.” For a while they were glad that we gained because it was a good sign that our bodies had started functioning well. But when we started gaining too much, it wasn’t so good.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take to get periods again?
LEBEDUN: It was an individual thing but it took six to seven months for some, even up to a year. I had it the second month I was free.
BERNSTEIN: That was lucky because you don’t know whether you’re going to be…
LEBEDUN: And I had a really bad infection, a urinary infection. I went to the hospital for tests and they wanted to keep me there, and I started crying, “I don’t want to be in the hospital.” I never was in a hospital before. And the doctors asked me not to cry – they didn’t want us to cry if they could help it.
BERNSTEIN: They thought you’d been through enough.
LEBEDUN: Yes. “Just don’t cry, don’t cry. I will send you back and we’ll make a sickroom because there are a couple of others, some of your friends, who have to be watched together.” So the nurse came every day and even twice a day if it was necessary from the hospital in another city. Then later they had a nurse who came and checked us from the town we were in. “And we’ll see how you are going to respond to medication.” And we had to try several kinds of medications. I couldn’t take sulfa because I broke out and at that time there was not too much penicillin but there was some kind of other medication and I responded to it. And the following week I had to go back to the hospital again for tests. I was told the infection was subsiding but it was up into my ovaries, the right ovary. They wanted to see how much more it would go down over the next week. Then when I went back to the hospital, the doctor wanted to remove the ovary. I said, “I don’t want surgery, I don’t want to be cut. I was enough defaced with my number. If it will be allright, it will be allright. If I die, I die, but I don’t want to be cut.” And I started crying again. And he said, “Well, let’s see in another 10 days what’s happening.” When I went back for the fourth time, he sat me down. I was kind of able to understand Swedish and he spoke pretty good German, and he told me I was going to have problems with that right ovary maybe for the rest of my life until I went through the change of life because that ovary was damaged a lot due to the infection. He said I was lucky the infection subsided, that the kidneys were not touched. He said he had seen so many others that had to be taken to the hospital for surgery and some who had died. This had happened from dirt. I was lucky not to have been so bad.
BERNSTEIN: So you made it all this time without having that ovary removed?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And then I had to go back three months later for another test. He told me that when I started menstruating, tell the nurse because I want to see you after your period is over. So the first month and the second month I said, “I’m not going back. I’ll see how it’s going to be the next month.” And I had terrible, terrible, cramps. When I hit the third month, I was doubled up in pain. The doctor said that was not unusual and I should lie down with a hot water bottle on my stomach, and to rest for the first couple of days. Nowadays you would be handled differently – no, maybe not, because some doctors still don’t believe there is a vitamin deficiency. Premenstrual syndrome now can be taken care of with special vitamins like B-6, but they didn’t know that at that time. And I had miserable times before I menstruated.
BERNSTEIN: Did he say anything at that point about whether you’d be able to have children or not?
LEBEDUN: He didn’t know. That wasn’t mentioned at all.
BERNSTEIN: You said that your body had already been marked with the tattoo. How did you view the tattoo? Let me look at it.
LEBEDUN: It didn’t bother me until our own people started looking at it, Jews. “Oh, they marked you.” This didn’t happen so much in New York because they had seen lots of us that way there. There were not remarks made there as much as in St. Louis because there were not so many of us in St. Louis and I heard that some people in St. Louis and other cities either had the tattoo removed or covered it up. The very religious ones didn’t have it removed but they put a bandaid on it and covered it up.
BERNSTEIN: Do you see it more as a badge of shame or a badge of honor?
LEBEDUN: I don’t see it either way. It was just an unfortunate circumstance that I was in, and I have it. I don’t see it as a badge of honor and yet I don’t view it as a badge of shame.
BERNSTEIN: As time has gone by, when you look at it do you think about your days in the camps?
LEBEDUN: Sometimes.
BERNSTEIN: But you see it everyday, so it’s not…
LEBEDUN: Yes, but it just doesn’t bother me and I don’t give it a great deal of thought. What’s in my soul, that’s different.
BERNSTEIN: How did you go about searching for your family?
LEBEDUN: Well, I didn’t have anybody to search for. The ones I knew were in the camp, my mother and my two brothers and my father and my husband, I found out in camp what happened to them. But I had an uncle who converted – my father’s brother. We searched for him through the Red Cross and they couldn’t come up with an answer for us. We listened to the broadcasts by the Red Cross in Sweden announcing who was looking for whom in different places. When we were in New York, we used to meet once a month and disseminated information about who had heard from somebody.
BERNSTEIN: Who did you meet with once a month?
LEBEDUN: The refugees’ club met once a month.
BERNSTEIN: Did you find your uncle that way?
LEBEDUN: Never, never. And then my husband’s brother who also converted and married a Christian lady. She saved him. He was in the underground. And I corresponded with him from Sweden and then I lost – in the purge in Czechoslovakia which was, I think, the second year after the war was over. Two years almost, two years in Sweden, and just before I came to this country I never got any answer to my letters and I was never able to find him again.
BERNSTEIN: You know, here they talk about no trust, and you were lied to and disgraced. However, you did have trusted relationships with your sister and some close friends while you were in prison camps.
BERNSTEIN: Did you feel it was difficult for you to build up trust with people again?
LEBEDUN: Of course it was a big issue because when the doctors came to Sweden and they asked us questions – psychiatrists, very renowned from Stockholm and a very big hospital – they used to come and ask us questions and I just couldn’t hear it, I became hysterical. “Don’t talk, don’t say anything, they don’t understand, they just want to question us to find out what the blasted Germans did to us and how it affected us. How can you understand, you will never understand.” There are no words to describe it. They came with translators and I ran out. I just couldn’t hear it. It took me three months before I opened up, one of the head of the team of psychiatrists, a lady who came after me found me crying. And she said, “Why can’t you talk?” I said that there were no words in any language to describe what we went through and how we feel and how we missed everything. We won’t be able to trust anyone again. We had a disrupted life which we’ll never get together again. Ours is a very emotional life. Sometimes up to this day, I don’t know how people can understand, if they ever will be…Maybe someday somebody will understand the life we had to lead and the trials and the tribulations in our own minds and in our feelings – to be able to sort them out and cope with them or to be able to push them in, just not to remember – to forget them, because they hurt so much. And she said to me, “You have such a strong faith in God, you are still praying.” I said, “Yes I am, but this is something I cannot find peace in my soul and I can’t even hear what the others are trying to say.” And she said, “So, when God saved you and he wanted you to live, why do you want to destroy yourself? Is it because the hate towards those who did this to you is so strong in you and the pain is so strong in you that you cannot differentiate? But the hate never builds, it destroys, and not the one you hated, but yourself. Why do you want to destroy yourself?” And with that, she left me. I don’t know – I was sitting there on the bench and spent a long time sobbing before I quit, and that started me thinking.
And the following week, I went in there and I sat in the back, and I just listened for a while. Then I ran out because it was just too painful. Then she came after me again and she said, “I am very proud of you for trying. Next time, you will try again.”
BERNSTEIN: And what was it you listened to?
LEBEDUN: What the others were telling her about their experiences, what they were sharing with the psychiatrist. (SIGHING)
The following week, she came alone and requested to see me, and she sat down with me and started talking to me and then asking me questions. And I started responding to her and that night she stayed in town and came again the following day – all of them – for the session. And they had Red Cross people there and we were questioned and interviewed, and I stayed and a couple of times she called on me and I answered. And that was the breaking point, the breakthrough. When I started talking about, I was able even to listen to what the others were saying and participate.
BERNSTEIN: What was it like to be clean again, to have baths when you wanted to, to use a toothbrush?
LEBEDUN: Oh, that was heaven! We couldn’t get out of the water, we couldn’t get out of the tub. There were not too many showers but we bathed and we had soap, fragrant soap and towels. That was heaven.
BERNSTEIN: Same thing with being able to go to the bathroom when you wanted to – privacy.
LEBEDUN: Yes. There were outhouses. They called them English toilets.
BERNSTEIN: They had outhouses?
LEBEDUN: Yes, but they were nice and clean. We were housed in a school.
BERNSTEIN: So actually your body filled out quickly because you were getting so much rich food?
BERNSTEIN: Did it take a long time to see yourself as a woman again?
LEBEDUN: You know, the Swedish men used to flock around us when we went to dances and they looked at us because they were used to having blond women, and we were all dark haired. We had dark eyes – well, not I, but most of the girls had dark eyes. And they said, “Oh, cherub, sweet pretty girls.” So we thought, “Well, I guess we look like women again.” But that wasn’t our first preoccupation because our priority was to find out whether we had any survivors, and that our bodies were too fat and we could not get into the skirt or the dress, and why we got so fat. And when the doctors came, they said, “Well we just have to put you on rations, not because we want to. The few of you who want to still eat a lot can get any amount you want. But those of you who want to learn to control yourselves will be put on rations. Please feel free to ask for whatever you wish after we serve.” And then we were able to help in the kitchen, to cook our meals, serve and clean up. We were encouraged, if we wanted to work for a couple of hours, to bag in a store or something. There were things we didn’t pay much attention to, but we wanted to look nice and clean, and they came and cut our hair the way we wanted it. They gave us some rags we could use to roll up our hair in curls and we could sleep on them because they were soft. They were very nice to us. It took them a while to warm up. Swedish people are more reserved, but they were very, very nice to us, and they did not ask questions. Perhaps they were told not to. “If you want to invite them for a meal to your home, you may do so.”
BERNSTEIN: What was it like to be able to have some control over where you went, who you went with, or making a decision about what you wanted to do?
LEBEDUN: For a while we kind of doubted our own decisions. “Did I do it right?” (Like when somebody invited us to come to their home for a meal Sunday.) “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have gone. I don’t know those people and they will look at us as though we are freaks or something.” There were doubts in our minds. And sometimes we said, “Sorry, I cannot make it, I don’t feel too good.” You know, we made excuses. But, little by little we got into the mainstream of everyday life.
BERNSTEIN: How long would you say it took?
LEBEDUN: It took a long while because on the outside we were trying to act very normal, and on the inside we were grieving.
BERNSTEIN: How long were you in Sweden?
LEBEDUN: Almost three years. But some were only there one year. One of the girls in our group left after only a year for this country. A couple of them decided to go back to Czechoslovakia because they found out that they had a brother or sister there and went back to where they came from. And when my two cousins saw my sister’s name in one of the Red Cross papers, they immediately sent a telegram saying we were not under any circumstances to repatriate to Czechoslovakia. Later they wrote us that they had gotten in touch with our aunt and uncle in New York and they would try to get papers for us because we could not go to Mexico – the quota was closed. She added that when we were in New York, if we still wanted to go to Mexico, she could help us go there. We didn’t go there and I’m sorry we didn’t.
When I left that town, I left to stay with a lady in Stockholm, with a lady and her husband. I was to work there and sort of be like a girl Friday, to oversee the household. They had help. My friend who was contacted by her cousin and her aunt from New York went there first and I just decided to stay in Braderry, that’s where we were, for a while until we left for this country. And when she left she asked what I was going to do there in that small town. She said, “They are lovely people and they will take you and they will help my Selma, my sister, come with you and you’ll leave from Stockholm and they are so lovely, and you’ll be able to go to the…”

Tape 8 - Side 2 (Bernstein)

“…and they’ll be so good to you, you’ll learn to speak Swedish so well. You’re going to love it here.” So, I decided that I would go to Stockholm. And something happened with her visa and there was a delay, so the people I was supposed to go, they knew another person who was working for one of the foreign consulates and they wanted to keep me until I get to Stockholm. So I went to them and stayed there. They had two little children and all I did was play with those little children. The baby loved me and nobody could come near the baby except I. I sometimes had two days off in two weeks and sometimes just a day off. And he used to take me with him. They lived in the country outside of Stockholm and he used to take me to work with him in the morning to his office and drop me off. Then I took the trolley, the streetcar, to my friends, so I got to know the family I was going to be with. And when I left that place – I was there, I think, three months – not quite three months, two and one-half months. And I used to write to my sister. I missed her terribly. And when I left there they all cried. They would have liked me to stay. Then I came to Dr. Colleen and my friend left the day after I was there for the port. She came by boat to this country also. And she found me crying one day – I had my own room – and she asked why I was crying. I said, “Oh, I miss my sister.” And she said, “Joannie said you missed your sister, and Dr. Colleen started already asking questions when he was working in the international library. He has lots of connections.” He was a Ph.D. and she was a druggist, a pharmacologist. They had no children and they were taking care of their niece who was from Finland, grown up. She went to school there. We had lots of fun with us three. She was teaching me to write Swedish and the proper pronounciation and all that. And she said, “You’ll have her with you in no time flat.” And within a couple of months she was with me. They got permission for her to come and I had a big room which we shared. They got her a job to work and since she had no experience of any kind, you know she was too young when they took her. We had no professions, so they got her a job in a factory putting parts together for lamps and she got good pay.
BERNSTEIN: For lamps?
LEBEDUN: Yes, for lamps.
BERNSTEIN: This was your sister?
LEBEDUN: Yes. And it wasn’t too far to go to the streetcar.
BERNSTEIN: Was this in New York?
LEBEDUN: No, in Stockholm, Sweden. Then our papers came and we left together for this country.
BERNSTEIN: All your possessions had been taken away from you. Do you remember the first thing you had and what it was like to own things again? What was the first thing you owned?
LEBEDUN: Our clothes – panties and a bra, even though they didn’t fit.
BERNSTEIN: Was that exciting even though they didn’t fit?
LEBEDUN: Yes. Well, the bra – we were used to not having anything up there – but panties and stockings and a dress, a coat, an umbrella so we didn’t get wet when it rained. And we had water to drink anytime we wanted it.
BERNSTEIN: You saw many, many people die during the war. After the war, what was it like to be able to grieve when someone died, or to have Kaddish with the rituals that were involved in Jewish customs?
LEBEDUN: I couldn’t go to the cemeteries. I had a very dear lady die, a very good next door neighbor, and the grandmother died. And she always said to my children – because my neighbor had a little girl and I took care of her because she was working all the time – and the little girl was growing up with my children. She slept on my bed more than my own children slept on my bed, and Rene and the grandmother – my children didn’t. So, I had to explain that they died during the war and then my little one, my Annie, said, “Well, mom, I don’t have to worry that I don’t have a grandmother because Rene’s grandmother is my grandmother too. She told me yesterday that she is my grandmother.” And they were very nice to my children, giving them gifts at Hanukkah and Hanukkah gelt and all that. When she died – well, first her son died, but he wasn’t living there. And the old lady wanted to see me. When her daughter-in-law and son came, that night when she found out about his death and was going to bring his body here to be buried, they came in and asked where I was. So, my neighbor told them I was taking care of Rene. “We couldn’t get a sitter right away and we don’t even have to look for a sitter because Hilda is there.” So she said, “Oh, Bernie, you go home and bring Hilda here.” So he picked up Rene who was sleeping on my bed and brought me to his mother’s house. And I never will forget that I sat down on a stool next to her and she took my hand and my head in her hands and she was crying. She cried tears that she couldn’t cry before.
BERNSTEIN: Who was this?
LEBEDUN: An old, old lady, my neighbor’s mother-in-law. And she said, “They don’t understand how it feels to lose somebody.” And she said, “I am sorry if I make you feel bad but I couldn’t cry before anybody – only you. It’s so hard for a mother to lose a child. Why him? Why not me? I’m old!” And I just let her cry and I hugged her. And I told her my own grandmother had said the same thing about how hard it was for a mother to lose a child. They left us alone when they saw how she was sobbing and I was holding her, hugging her. And we were both crying. When we stopped, my neighbor – my friend – came in and brought us coffee and said we should have a little something to drink. And we were sitting there and she was just petting me and hugging me. I couldn’t go to the cemetery, even when she died. We all cried, “Grandma died,” you know, and I couldn’t go to the cemetery.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take before you were able to go to funerals?
LEBEDUN: I went to the chapel but I could not go to the cemetery.
BERNSTEIN: How about now?
LEBEDUN: It’s still hard but it’s easier. After years. So I have no grave to go to, O.K.? So where am I going to go? So when I finally drove myself, I asked my son, Ronnie, to go with me to the “Y” on Olive. There are two headstones for the survivors – in memory of the survivors. And that’s where I went to pray and say Kaddish and that’s where I still go because I don’t want to go to the graves of my husband’s relatives. I just cannot do that. But the first time I was able to go to a cemetery was when my husband’s Aunt Yetta died. I stood by the grave and I hung on for dear life to my husband. All of it came back to me – my poor parents and all those who died didn’t even have a grave. (CRYING) I don’t even have a grave for them. But I am trying to tell myself whenever this comes to my mind, when I go to a funeral, “I don’t even have a grave, but the grave is not necessary to have to remember and to love forever.”
And everytime I tell my children I don’t want to be buried, I want to have my body donated to the hospital, to Washington University, to some place. Because I told them, “You will remember me without a grave. And suppose I am buried here and you are someplace in Timbuktoo? I don’t want you to come and see the grave.” Like my daughter, she lives in Maryland, so she has to make a pilgrimage to come and see my grave? I don’t want that.
There are lots of things we have to get used to. I still am not very comfortable with policemen or any type of an authority. I fall apart. One time my husband picked me up from work and a policeman was right behind us and stopped us. “What’s wrong? We didn’t go fast.” And he asked to see our driver’s license and I was shivering. “What did we do?” He said, “Mr. Lebedun, where is your new sticker?” I said, “Oh my God, I don’t know whether it’s here in the glove compartment or at home.” So he opened the glove compartment. Then he said he had to give us a ticket because the sticker was not attached to our plate. And I said, “Oh, please, don’t do that to me.” I knew my husband had gotten the sticker and I didn’t ask him whether he had put it on the plate. In certain things my husband has no understanding. He said, “Why did you get so excited? I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t rob anybody and we were not going fast. Don’t get so frightened right away.” I’m very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable.
There is such a big paradox, even living in the camp life and then being free to marry again and to have a family and never forgetting what happened and the ones we lost and to never be able to get rid of the cruel fate – the feeling of the cruel fate we had to endure. How to be able to arrange one’s life to develop a coping mechanism, to live two kinds of lives – a very private life I cannot forget and forsake what happened to me, and the deep faith I have in God, and yet I can not adhere to the religion – and the life we try to lead in sort of a normalcy. It’s very hard to explain how time does not heal wounds but they are sort of covered a little bit. And the only way we can cope is with a coping mechanism which we develop. I guess every individual developed a different coping mechanism and being able to cope better means that those dreams, terrible haunting, horrible dreams don’t come back so much in one’s sleep.
BERNSTEIN: Do you mean as time goes on?
LEBEDUN: As time goes on.
BERNSTEIN: How often would you say that you get flashbacks now?
LEBEDUN: It’s frequent but I found a different way to cope with it and the dreams about the atrocities and the horror are not as frequent unless I am very emotionally upset. It took me years to train my husband not to wake me because it passes easier. But if he wakes me, it’s a flashback and I don’t even have to close my eyes. He just lets me scream or cry or whatever and then I just go back to sleep automatically. It’s a process of wanting to sleep over them or whatever the scientists call it. But when he used to wake me up, it was even worse.
BERNSTEIN: You mentioned something about belief in God. Did your belief in God change, changed in time?
LEBEDUN: No, my belief in God never changed. It became stronger. My belief in religious rituals are null.
BERNSTEIN: You had them before?
LEBEDUN: I had them before because I was raised in the Orthodox faith and we walked for miles to go to the temple and we did not go to the temple on Friday night, we children, but we were taught that Friday night even the father wasn’t home and we couldn’t all eat together because he was on the road and sometimes he didn’t come home on Friday night. But we all lit the candles with mother and got cleaned up in our pajamas and we had dinner and prayers, almost like father was home. And I was not allowed to write on Saturday in school, no matter how important the class was, which I didn’t like. But this was the tradition.
BERNSTEIN: So you went to school on Saturday but you couldn’t write on Saturday?
LEBEDUN: We were not allowed to write. After grade school my mother said, “God will forgive you if you write on Saturday because He will know it’s not due to your choice.” But in grade school we were not allowed. And I was going to school with some of the very, very Orthodox people, not in my class but in the religious school. They didn’t go to school, they went to shul and I asked my mother one time, “Why don’t we go to shul and go to school?” She said, “There are certain man made laws and traditions which probably will change in the changing times of our life. I think it’s more pertinent for you to go to school and listen to the lesson, even though you don’t write. Then go to the temple because when you come back from school and before we have supper we sit down and we pray all together. And He will know why you went to school today. We are not that ultra religious. That doesn’t mean that God loves us less.” And then later on, my grandmother used to say, “If you don’t go to shul, you know where your prayer book is. If you would rather go into the backyard and sit under the tree on the bench and pray, God will hear you there too and He will hear you in any circumstance, even if you are in the forest and there is no light, or you are in danger and there is nobody around you to help you. Just pray to God and He will help you. Shema Yisrael, always remember that. And the rituals, other people keep them very strict but sometimes it is not so good because no religion in the eyes of God is good or bad. It’s how you feel inside of you and how you conduct yourself.”
I couldn’t bench licht on Friday night. I got hysterical every time, so I stopped doing it. I still bench licht at the high holidays and it’s not easy for me.
BERNSTEIN: Do you mean the blessings after the meals?
LEBEDUN: No, when you bench licht on Friday night before, when Shabbos comes.
BERNSTEIN: Saying the prayers?
LEBEDUN: Yes, or when you bench licht before the holidays. It isn’t easy for me. Holidays are bad for me after all those years, very bad.
BERNSTEIN: They still are?
LEBEDUN: Yes, so I don’t make a big issue out of holidays. The tradition which I keep on holidays is not because of the tradition of religion, it is because of the honor for my loved ones. Coming to this country, the tradition and the religion are so different than they were in Europe, at least the ones I have seen. When I see that people are very religious, and they go out to eat – not kosher. Or they bring traif into the house and use paper plates in the kitchen and don’t go into the dining room with it. This was a very big conflict with me because if you’re kosher, you’re kosher. You don’t eat traif, not even outside. You either are or you are not. Of course, if God gave this commandment that we should be kosher, if God designed it, then one has to keep it. And one is or isn’t. And if it’s a man made law to serve a different purpose, then it’s a man made law to be amended. So why are we not allowed to eat pork? Because lots of people died from trichinosis. That’s not the case now. And why do people eat in a restaurant even when they are very kosher, and they order fish? That fish could be fried in the same frying pan. Or it was washed, all right, but it could be where pork cutlets were fried. So, that doesn’t make sense to me. Somehow I feel that God did not want us to be hypocrites and change the tradition according to one’s own convenience. That’s how I saw it. My sister-in-law is very kosher and her children went to cheder and her daughter was bat mitzvah and she married out of her religion, and she eats kosher and goes to eat in restaurants or brings traif in the house and eats in the kitchen on a paper plate.
BERNSTEIN: That’s the daughter?
LEBEDUN: No, that’s my sister-in-law. And her mother, when she was alive, used to go out to eat and she looked at me and said, “Hilda, how come you ordered lobster today? That’s traif.” And this went on for several years. And one time I said, “Aunt Sadie, I love you very much. You know I have no family of my own and I try to feel that you are my family. When you ordered fish, how do you know the fish wasn’t made in a pot where pork was cooked?” I guess Aunt Sadie mentioned this to her daughter because next time Aunt Sadie came, I wasn’t invited to go to the restaurant. I’m still a better Jew because I believe in God more than she does, she believes more in rituals.
I still go on my knees every day to thank God and to pray to Him. We belonged to Shaare Emeth, when my children were small and went to school, and all three of them were confirmed from there. Then when they decided that they were no longer going to be in U. City, they wanted too much money for membership and didn’t know if I would pay that much. So, I called the gentleman who was in charge of the Sunday school who knew me well. And I said, “I cannot pay these dues. My husband doesn’t make more money. And I don’t make more money.” So he said, “Well, I’ll talk to the committee.” So I guess he did because Mr. Horen, the head of the committee called me and he said, “Mrs. Lebedun, for all the years you were a member, but we can no longer carry the members who cannot pay more money because we need more money for the temple. I will consider your appeal but would you come to the committee and tell them in your own words why you cannot pay more?”
And I said, “Mr. Horen, that I will never do. I will never turn against God, so I will not go to temple. If God could hear me in the dungeons, in the misery and in concentration camps where I was, and He saved me, He’s going to hear me now because I have a clean home and I try to lead a clean life and not hurt anyone knowingly and willingly, but I will never go to a committee. If you cannot take my word for it…” He knows my circumstances and he knows me, and knows my children, and knows my family and me and I wasn’t going to my husband’s family to ask for money for this purpose. I said, “I have nothing else to say, and I thank you for listening to me.” And I hung up. And he called the director of the Sunday school and he said, “The pride of that woman! What shall we do with her?” And he called me back and said, “Write him a letter.” I said, “No, I am not going to do that.” I told him what I had to say, “My children are confirmed. They know the history of their people, and that’s what I am interested in. They see me praying to God and they will honor God the same way they see me doing it.”
BERNSTEIN: So what happened? Did you hear from them again?
LEBEDUN: He called me and he said, “Would you like me to do something about the membership?” I said, “No, thank you. I feel very hurt and I am still praying to God. Don’t worry.” But I miss it sometimes going to a place of worship. But I was not going to plead. Only with God will I plead, not with man.

Tape 9 - Side 1 (Bernstein)

BERNSTEIN: O.K., when you were in upper Silesia…?
LEBEDUN: And we had that triple decker and that worn, thin, little ersatz blanket which was a celluloid blanket and we slept together for warmth, my sister and I and a couple of friends. They were always waking us up by saying, “Get apart, get apart, get apart!” And it didn’t hit me until a couple of days later why they were telling us to get apart, because even in that camp there were rumors – oh, that’s a kapo, you know, I told you the kapo was helping the SS – the German kapos, we saw them kissing and smooching, you know, in a very sexual way. And I said, “Oh my God, we never knew about it.” And one night I told the SS woman who was on duty, “Please let us sleep. We are Jews and we have morals. We don’t know what you’re talking about. We are not some German lesbians.” And she said, “You report in front tomorrow morning.” And I said, “Yah wohl! Yes!”
And after the roll call she called me to go before the commandant. My sister looked at me and said, “Oh Hilda, you should have kept quiet last night.” I said, “Well, I’m just going to repeat what I told her. I’m not going to lie that I didn’t say that.” They hated lies. So, I came in front of the commandant, and there I said, “Prisoner 7290 requests the permission to be in front of you.” And he looked at me and he asked, “Your number? Oh, 7290. Oh, where do you come from – Auschwitz – blah, blah, blah?” And again, “How do you speak German so well?” So I told him my mother went to German schools and taught us children German. And he said, “O.K., you repeat to me what you said to the SS woman in front of her last night towards the morning.” So I told him, “Yes, I told her that we are Jews and we are not some German lesbians and we don’t sleep together for no other reason but to keep warm. It’s terribly cold.” And he said, “Who gave you permission to talk in this derogatory manner to an SS woman?” I said, “Well, she woke us up every night and told us to go apart, and then two hours later we had to stand roll call in the cold again. Please, if you want us to work in the ammunition factory, let us at least have some warmth.”
BERNSTEIN: What did he say?
LEBEDUN: He looked at me and he said, “Are you going to work well if you are going to be sleeping together for warmth?”
I said, “Well, we’re not going to get sick and you won’t have to spend the bullets shooting us.” There was no crematorium there. I said, “You can use them against your enemies on the front.” So he said, “You are impertinent.” And I said, “Yes, yah wohl, Herr Commandant, but this is the honest to goodness truth.” So he told me to scram out. Then he was talking to the SS woman because she stayed there for a while.
In the afternoon, we each got another blanket, and we were saying, “Oh-oh, one more blanket!” And he didn’t do anything to me anymore. But the extra blanket wasn’t good, so we still slept together. Then the SS woman came and again woke me up and said, “The commandant gave you another blanket, he should have shot you to death. And you are still sleeping together.” I replied, “You stay with us for two hours, you can observe what we are doing. We are sleeping, we are tired and cold and the two ersatz blankets are not enough.” So she just left and they didn’t enforce it anymore.
Oh, it was horrible. We looked at one another when we saw that. You know, the German women – there was not much morals in Germany, never! That’s why our G.I.’s could get a woman for a bar of chocolate or a nylon hose.
BERNSTEIN: When you came in and they had three tiers of beds, did you want to be on a particular tier – was any one better or more strategic?
LEBEDUN: The lower tier was the best but we took turns. We slept a couple of nights on the lower and then on the second and the third because the third one used to crash down. It was very flimsily built. It was just terrible! Sometimes when I sit and reminisce, like I did this afternoon out in the sun on the patio, how we made it through, I don’t know. By the grace of God and by luck and I don’t know any other way. Why me when there were others who died?
BERNSTEIN: When you look at your tattoo, how does that feel?
LEBEDUN: That doesn’t bother me. The only time it bothers me is when our Jewish people say, “Oh, you were in a concentration camp. How was it there?”
BERNSTEIN: When you were marked with it – did it have any particular meaning then?
LEBEDUN: No, because we never knew that we were going to live. They marked us – so, they marked us. The only time it was bad was if it became infected and it was a certain death. There were lots of girls who didn’t live because of that. It was just ink and the same needle tied to a pencil.
BERNSTEIN: How long did it take it to heal?
LEBEDUN: If we were lucky, it was just red and it didn’t get infected. And after a while it faded away. If we were not lucky and it got infected and if there was no “selection” at that particular time and one’s body still had the capacity to heal it, it wasn’t so bad. If nobody saw it, one was safe. But when there was “selection” and there was any pimple on the body, that was it!
BERNSTEIN: Can you tell me anything about your relationship with your sister? Do you think that it was helpful for you to have someone so close?
LEBEDUN: Oh, definitely. That was a big help. Although very few girls knew we were sisters, it was a help. When I was so very sick – I got sick first with typhoid – and I felt like giving up. I had no strength. I called for her and called for her and she stood in front of me when she could smuggle herself inside the sick bay to see me. And I didn’t recognize her. And when I got better, for some reason or another, then she got sick and I used to go after her. I shook her and a couple of times I smacked her face like she did mine, “You’ve got to live, you’ve got to live! I will die if you don’t live too. You promised mother, you promised mother that you were going to live because some of us have to survive!” When we promised mother we would survive, we had to keep our promise.
BERNSTEIN: Are you still close?
LEBEDUN: Yes. She calls, sometimes once a week, sometimes once in two weeks. And I call there because her husband had a heart attack and he cannot cook for himself – not like my husband. So, she can’t leave him too well. I used to go to Mexico for a month and left my husband at home and he was allright.
BERNSTEIN: Did you have a hard time leaving New York after all that time you spent with your sister, knowing that you’d be moving away?
LEBEDUN: Yes, it was a very hard time. I didn’t know when I left New York. I just came for a visit, I didn’t know I was going to stay here. She didn’t come to my wedding here. But she softened up towards my husband but still ever so often she says to me, “I just cannot stand it that you have to work so hard.” She works with her husband in the business but it’s different. She said, “Well, that was your choice that we are here. We could have been in Sweden and it would have been much better.”
BERNSTEIN: She thought it would be better in Sweden?
LEBEDUN: I could have married a very wealthy man but he wasn’t Jewish and I just couldn’t do it.
BERNSTEIN: Can you think of anything else you want to add from all our discussions?
LEBEDUN: I think for as long as I live and until I die, I will have the same feeling that there are no words to express what we went through. There are still no words. I looked at dictionaries, both German and English, and I tried to put words together and there is just no such thing. It’s impossible for somebody who didn’t go through what we went through to understand. I think that some American servicemen who were P.O.W.’s in the camps – Japanese camps and then Vietnamese camps. Even worse, the Vietnamese camps. They have more empathy for what we went through than anybody else. Otherwise, it’s just impossible to even try to make sense out of that situation. How many died after we were freed, how valiantly they tried in Sweden to save their lives. And the ones who stayed in Sweden awaiting repatriation were, I think, somewhat better off than those who were in the German D.P. camps. I talked to a couple of people who were in the German D.P. camps and life was hard there too. They didn’t get the care we got in Sweden, the love, the acceptance not as Jews but as human beings. Where I was we used to conduct services. Some of the girls were very religious. We would light candles on Friday nights and that used to bother me terribly, to light candles.
LEBEDUN: Because I associated it with my family. My mother used to do it on Friday nights, so I used to do that. And the doctor I had here, Dr. Light, I told him one time that it bothered me so terribly and I get so blue. And I cried downstairs after the kids had gone to school. Up to this day, my laundry room is my wailing wall. So, he used to tell me, “Well, Hilda, don’t light the candles. Your mother, wherever her soul is, knows that you remember her and if it creates such a trauma in your being, don’t do it.”
BERNSTEIN: So, did you stop lighting them?
LEBEDUN: I stopped lighting them.
BERNSTEIN: Who was Dr. Light?
LEBEDUN: He was my doctor. He was a friend of my husband’s family in St. Louis and I started to go to him for my ailments.
BERNSTEIN: Was there a name for the place in Sweden where you were taken?
LEBEDUN: Yes, Braderry, that was the town in southern Sweden. And they used to love to hear us sing the liturgy songs. I didn’t know a lot of them. I knew them in German because at least I knew I was saved. But the girls from Karpatho-Ukraine and even from Moravia and Bohemia, they were living together with more Jewish people, so it was a little different than in Slovakia, that part of Slovakia where I was born and raised. There were very few Jews together. And we used to sing when lighting the candles. We’d sing our folk songs and we went to Papa Olstrum in a big room where he had a piano and a victrola. And he tried to improvise when we were singing.
BERNSTEIN: He was not Jewish, right?
LEBEDUN: No, he was not Jewish, but he was so nice. I corresponded with him for some time after I got to Sweden and then he married a Norwegian lady after Aunt Ellen died and his children got married. And then I kind of lost contact with him. I guess he died or something because I didn’t hear from him for a long, long time. And I just imagined that he died. But, Joan lives now in Florida. She tragically lost her husband in a car accident and she still calls me “Schafele.”
BERNSTEIN: Little lamb?
BERNSTEIN: And the five of you were you and Selma and Joan…
LEBEDUN: And another Joan and Libby.
BERNSTEIN: And where is the other Joan?
LEBEDUN: The other Joan is in Czechoslovakia. And Libby was in Czechoslovakia, and Libby, her cousin, went to Israel. And then Joan married somebody in Czechoslovakia and then immigrated to Israel and that’s as far as I know. Joan in Florida used to keep in touch with her, but somehow she lost contact with her.
BERNSTEIN: So you don’t hear anything from those others?
LEBEDUN: Not from the others, but I hear from Joan. She has a daughter and her health is not so good, that’s what she wrote to me. Her daughter lives quite a distance from her, so she doesn’t see much of her, and she is very lonely. She writes to me once in a while and asks me to come visit with her. I didn’t tell her anything about Ronnie because she has her own problems. So, I said to my sister when we talked that Joan had mentioned that her health was very bad, and I asked her what more she had heard about it. Joan’s sister lives in New York and my sister is in touch with her. So my sister told me she had some liver problems.
BERNSTEIN: From what happened?
LEBEDUN: That’s what she had before but then it was better, and now it’s acting up again. And she also has arthritis in the lower spine, but I guess she has it worse than I do because sometimes she cannot walk well. There is a saying that when such a traumatic experience happens to a human life, that the life becomes – I looked it up in the dictionary and I forgot it again – the translation from German is a “spoiled life.” It’s a spoiled life we lead. Because no matter how well other people might be – you know, financially better off than I and don’t have to work, and have more niceties than I have – but there is always in the background that void and pain which I don’t think will ever go away. And some of try to push it into the background and we try to get in the mainstream of America. But as the years go by, one cannot keep it under a lid. Lots of girls had emotional troubles because of that.
BERNSTEIN: How do you mean “spoiled life”?
LEBEDUN: Because their normal stream of life was spoiled, was cut, was wounded by the experience. And I can illustrate with a big rope, a rope which seamen use which consists of many strands and many interwoven fibers. When they get frayed, they fix them but when they are mended they are never the same. It is not as strong or as smooth. It holds together but it’s never the same – is it?
I mentioned to you that when we used to march to the ammunitions factory in upper Silesia and when they didn’t have to put the black window shades down for air raid purposes, it was still kind of dusk and they needed the light but they didn’t have to put the shades down. I used to look into every window. With a yearning I wished I would be one of you and together with the ones I loved. And that’s a habit which is inside of me, unconsciously, to this day!
BERNSTEIN: You mean you still look in windows?
LEBEDUN: When I pass by a window without a shade, I look in, not because I’m nosy and want to see. It’s just like a homing pigeon – my eyes just focus without my knowing.
BERNSTEIN: Maybe seeing loved ones sitting around a table or whoever is there?
LEBEDUN: Yes. But sometimes I don’t see anyone, but there is light in there.
BERNSTEIN: And it always catches your eye?
LEBEDUN: Yes, and I always look. Sometimes when I’m conscious of it, I try not to look and then I pass by another house, and there I am looking in again. And I say, “Oh, what the hey, I have to use my strength for something else,” but to this day I just cannot get it out of my system. We didn’t even see whole families together. Young men we didn’t see, older men and women and children, but they were together.
BERNSTEIN: This concludes the interview with Hilda Lebedun

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