Holocaust survivor speaks of her experiences

by Elizabeth Sias
ECM Sun Newspapers

“The children’s eyes still haunt me, because their stories were my story, and my story was theirs.”

Inge Auerbacher holds up the yellow star she was forced to wear during the Holocaust. Photo by Elizabeth Sias
Inge Auerbacher holds up the yellow star she was forced to wear during the Holocaust. Photo by Elizabeth Sias

Those are the words of Holocaust survivor Inge Auerbacher, who spoke Oct. 6, at Calvin Christian High School in Fridley on the campus of Grace Evangelical Free Church.

The award-winning author was seven years old when she and her parents were deported in August 1942 from their home in Germany to Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Before the war

Auerbacher was the last Jewish child born in Kippenheim, a village in southwest Germany located near the borders of France and Switzerland. Born in 1934, she was the only child of Berthold and Regina Auerbacher. Both of her parents came from observant Jewish families who had lived for many generations in Germany.

“I was a typical German child,” she said. “My parents gave me a typical German name. We were proud Germans.”

Auerbacher’s father was a soldier in the German Army during World War I. He was wounded and consequently awarded the Iron Cross for service to his country.

The Night of Broken Glass

“The year 1938 is the time when everything changed,” she said. “I was not even four, but I remember it so well.”

Auerbacher, 78, was describing Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, a series of attacks against Jews throughout Germany and Austria on Nov. 9-10, 1938.

The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after thousands of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues had their windows smashed. Over 1,000 of synagogues were burned and thousands of Jewish businesses destroyed.

She said she remembers finding the synagogue in her hometown of Kippenheim burned, the inside in ruins with glass and debris covering the floor.

During the attacks, thousands of Jews were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps, including Auerbacher’s father and grandfather.

Her maternal grandparents had come to visit. They lived a few hundred miles away in Jebenhausen, an even smaller village than Kippenheim. Her grandfather was arrested in the synagogue while saying his morning prayers.

Her father, grandfather and other Jewish males over the age of 16 were sent to Dachau concentration camp. Every window in their house was broken.

Auerbacher, her mother and other relatives hid in their backyard shed to save themselves from the rioting mob, she said.

Both her father and grandfather were released from Dachau after a few weeks. The men, she said, had been treated badly. Forced to remove their clothing and stand at attention for hours in the cold, they were hosed down with cold water if they moved.

Auerbacher’s family sold their house and moved in with her grandparents in Jebenhausen in 1939. At age six, she said, she attended a Jewish school and was forced to wear a yellow Star of David.

Deportation to concentration camp

In 1940, the transports began.

“Nobody did anything,” she said. “The bystanders are equally guilty as those doing it.”

Her grandmother and other members of her family were sent to Riga in Latvia, where death by shooting awaited them. Others were sent to Poland and were never heard from again.

Auerbacher and her parents were deported in August 1942. At age seven, she was the youngest in a transport of about 1,200 people. Three years later, she said, there would be 13 survivors from that group, three from her family.

Cramped on a train for two days, their destination was the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Terezin was selected by the Nazis as a transit camp before inmates were to be deported to killing centers like Auschwitz, according to Auerbacher’s website. It consisted of large brick barracks, underground cells and broken down houses. It was sealed off from the outside world by trenches, high walls, wooden fences and barbed wire.

Life in Terezin was a nightmare, Auerbacher said. The children were separated from their parents and slept two to a bed. Two weeks after their arrival, an epidemic of scarlet fever broke out.

There were lice and bed bugs constantly. Inmates were allowed two showers per year with supervision.

The food consisted of a black liquid in the morning, and usually a potato and turnip for lunch and dinner.

“It was not enough to die and it was not enough to live,” she said. “Hunger was a constant companion.”

Auerbacher said her worst memory is from Nov. 11, 1943. People were missing from Terezin. Soldiers had all the inmates gather in a ravine, their feet sinking in the mud. A Nazi regime pointed guns at the inmates and beat them.

“Many people died on the field,” she said.

When the order came to go back inside, parents were separated from their children. Auerbacher’s mother clung to her. In front of her eyes, a soldier grabbed her mother and beat her.

Auerbacher saw most of her friends sent to their deaths in gas chambers. She was in Terezin when the International Red Cross came to inspect the camp.

The transit camp housed some 140,000 people between 1941 and 1945. Most — about 88,000 — were sent on to the gas chambers in camps such as Auschwitz. About 35,000 died of malnutrition and disease in Terezin. Auerbacher and her parents were among the 1 percent who survived to see Terezin liberated in 1945.

After three years, liberation came by the Soviet Army on May 8, 1945. Auerbacher was 10 years old at the time.

Immigrating to America

After a short stay in a displaced persons’ camp in Stuttgart, Germany, she and her parents returned to Jebenhausen. They learned that at least 13 close relatives were slaughtered by the Nazis as well as many more of her extended family.

Auerbacher and her parents immigrated to America in May 1946. “We wanted to get away, to leave our past behind us,” she said.

Stricken with disease caused by years of malnutrition in the concentration camp, she was hospitalized for two years, fighting to regain her strength.

Although she had lost eight years of schooling, Auerbacher said she graduated with honors from Bushwick High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., after three years in 1953.

She earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry in 1958 and worked for 38 years as a chemist.

“Did I forgive these people who did it?” Auerbacher asked at the end of her speech. “I do not forgive and I do not forget, but I do believe in reconciliation. I do not forgive — that is for God to do.”

About Inge Auerbacher

Auerbacher has published six books in nine languages, including two accounts of her concentration camp experience and its aftermath: “I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust” and “Beyond the Yellow Star to America.”

She has shared her story with thousands in lectures throughout the U.S., Canada and Germany, and has been interviewed for documentaries, periodicals and radio and television programs.

Auerbacher’s visit and public address grows out of Calvin Christian High School’s “Holocaust Literature and Art” course. The course is taught by Anneke Branderhorst, whose work in Holocaust education brought her the 2013 “Courage to Teach” award from Tolerance, a program of the regional Jewish Community Relations Council.

For more information about Auerbacher, visit www.ingeauerbacher.com.