When I was on my way to meet Gerta for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was only a day after I was assigned the name “Gerta Solan” by the Jerusalem Municipality programme for Holocaust survivors, where I had signed up as a volunteer to make weekly visits and offer companionship to the elderly. What imaginary scenarios can one possibly conjure up about meeting someone who had survived Auschwitz, escaped death by a hair, more than once, while watching her entire family being wiped out?
In the induction programme, we had been told that survivors of the Holocaust were usually of two kinds – one that erased its mention from their lives and the other committed to sharing their stories, to make sure the world never forgets. I didn’t know which side Gerta stood on.
I found out less than five minutes after she answered the door with a smile that instantly calmed the voices in my head. “Do you know I am a holocaust survivor?” Her directness caught me off-guard; I managed a hesitant “yes”. The journey from strangeness to familiarity took mere minutes. But that’s Gerta for you. We sat in a small, cosy living room, lined with bookshelves as high as the ceiling.
She gave me a tour of the house – a modest and tastefully done up two-bedroom apartment. Framed photos of her husband, parents and in-laws sat on her dresser. She pointed to the pearl necklace she was wearing and said it belonged to her mother. She handed me a photo album that her grandchildren and great-children had gifted her on her birthday. ‘Happy 90th, Gertie’, it says on the cover. “That’s what they call me.” She is wearing a mask but I can hear her smile. “I cannot believe I am 90,” she adds, her eyes twinkling.
Gerta was born in Prague in December 1929, the same year as Anne Frank. In 1942, she was 13, when she was sent to Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp along with her parents and both maternal and paternal grandparents. Over 150,000 Jews were packed into it and more than half perished from the horrific living conditions. But during visits by the German government officials and the International Red Cross, the camp was dressed up as a cozy retirement colony, that was “self-governed” by a Jewish council.
“Hitler said that he gave Jews a new city, which was certainly ridiculous,” Gerta says. The camp housed actors, artists, musicians. They made a propaganda film featuring the ghetto’s cultural life full of musical and theatre performances. And Gerta was among its ensemble cast of “actors”. But when there was no inspection, life was beyond hard. She worked at a garden on a hill while her mother secured a job in the housing office. As men and women were separated, her father lived in another barrack, but they met for meals.
As more Jews continued to arrive every day, the Nazis needed to create space. So, long-time inmates began to be “transported to the East”. In August 1944, her father got a call, and a month later, it was Gerta’s turn. “But my mother didn’t get the call. She didn’t want me to go by myself into the unknown, so she came with me to the train.”
With fluent German, Gerta’s mother, Grete, convinced the guard to take her along. “His name was Commander Führer Röhm,” recalls Gerta, who remembers names of nearly every Nazi guard and doctor, and inmate she encountered. It was an overnight journey in a cattle train, with one stop to dispose those who had died.
When the train finally came to a halt, and they alighted, Gerta saw a German sign that said “working sets you free”. And outside the room where they were taken to be undressed, she saw the word “Auschwitz”. “We were given summer clothes to wear in October, and we had no underwear. The crematorium was across the barracks where we slept. Bodies from the gas chamber were cremated there – the Jews were put on the job and later, they were cremated too, because they knew too much.”
The day a Nazi doctor told Gerta, “You are going to the gas chamber,” was the last day she would see her mother. The sickly and frail 14-year-old didn’t make the survivors’ list, while her comparatively sturdier mother was chosen to be transported to another camp, presumably for labour. “You can imagine how my mother felt when she heard those words. She was soon taken away in a German car. That was the last time I saw her.”
Hours later, in the room next to the gas chamber, Gerta would slither out through a gap in a window, moments before she was to be thrown to her death. “The watchtower was dark, and there were no dogs. When I saw the window, I knew I had to try. I was lucky.”
She had several such close shaves, that she has mentioned in her memoir titled My Heart Is At Ease that was published in 2014. “We played a game of nostalgia, recalling memories from the past to forget for a while, the terrible present...The siren at 5 am woke us to the morning reality of roll call. We each wondered if we were going to be given another day of life,” she writes.
Ironically, it was the infamous Death March of January 1945 that paved the way to her final escape. Nine days after they left, the Soviets liberated the camp. Trekking through a frozen landscape, en route to a camp in Germany, eating snow to survive, Gerta and her fellow inmates had given up every hope, when they were rescued by Soviet soldiers. She was 15 when the War ended in May 1945, and she went back to Prague. Her maternal uncle was the only family she had left. “Uncle Franz survived the War with help from his Catholic wife, Anny. They had no children and they embraced my return. When they took me to the doctor, I heard him say that I won’t survive. But yet again, I did.”
She continued to live and study in Prague, and at 19, she married the love of her life, Paul, whom she had known for two years. While her life was slowly finding a rhythm, the political climate of post-War Europe was far from stable. After the Soviet Union and its allies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Gerta, Paul and their little son Mishko were among the 30,000 Jews that immigrated to Canada. Gerta went on live in Toronto for over 40 years, devoting her life to finding missing people for the Red Cross. She lived there until Paul succumbed to cancer, after which she moved to Israel to stay close to her son.
I’ve known Gerta for a year now. We rarely talk about her past anymore. She has ample to contribute in other areas, like food, politics, people, literature, especially Kafka, her neighbour from pre-War days. Sometimes we go for a walk in the sun, or to the nearby store. It’s not like we don’t fall into silences, but they are not the uneasy kinds. Besides, she always has cheesecake at hand, to fill the gaps, if any. When I went to meet her this Tuesday, on the eve of Remembrance Day, I noticed a familiar stack of sheets on the table. It’s a list of her family members lost to the War. “I felt like going through them; maybe I will, after you leave.” I suggested that perhaps she could look at them the next day, and not go to bed with those thoughts. “I think you’re right.”
Something tells me that Remembrance Day has nothing to do with her pulling out those papers. Remembering one’s lost family needs no nudge from the calendar. Was there ever anything nice at Auschwitz, I had once asked her. “I dreamt of fields with beautiful, colourful flowers. I was lucky that I was still able to dream such dreams.”
As our two hours are up, I get up to leave. “Thank you for coming,” she says, like she always does. Seeing me off at the door, she adds, “I shall see you next week...please come early; we need to go buy a phone charger. Take care!”
Kusumita Das is a freelance journalist from India currently living in Jerusalem. She writes on cinema, culture and travel, and in her free time tries to string together sentences in Hebrew.