Vote for Democracy
Author: Betty Kuffel
Two years in a concentration camp made Anna a very strong woman who set a good example for all of us. Years ago, I asked if she could tell me about her experiences in the Theresienstadt Nazi prison camp to help other women learn how to be strong in the face of adversity.
Anna gave me permission to share her story after her death. She was born May 17, 1923 in Hungary, the daughter of a diplomat. Her father’s travels required she attend a boarding school in Switzerland after her mother suffered paralyzing injuries in a horse-riding accident and died. Anna was eleven. She had one older brother. Anna died this year at the age of 94. She loved life, eating chocolates and drinking champagne with friends, family and rescue animals at her side.
I wrote Anna’s story in her voice, as if she is talking to you. This genre is creative non-fiction. The story is true. Dialogue based on her words. Names were changed at her request.
Life in a Box
On a blustery December night in 1943, German soldiers kicked in the door of our Vienna apartment. Yelling uniformed men dragged us to a waiting car. Exhaust choked my breath as I slid into the back seat with Patrice. He gripped my hand and whispered in German, “Anna, say nothing.”
An officer pushed in beside me. Patrice leaned forward to meet his eyes. He asked, “Why?”
The man spat, “You’re spies for the Americans, like her father.” As the car sped through town to the country, Patrice argued with the man to no avail. The car stopped. Armed men jerked the doors open at a train yard where cattle cars lined the tracks. Crowds of distraught people of all ages shivered in falling snow.
Officers crushed us into a rail car with standing room only. The door dragged shut, locking us in total darkness.
Weeks earlier, my father, a notable Hungarian diplomat, had disappeared with my brother. I feared for their safety. We weren’t Jewish and I naively believed the Nazis would never come for us. I felt secure with my studies in medicine, living with my charming French husband, Patrice, a busy physician. In wartime, we found strength in love, snuggled in our apartment preparing for Christmas. How could this be happening?
Strangers’ bodies pressed against me. When the car jerked into motion, a trembling child’s hand gripped my leg for balance. Patrice wrapped his arms around me. We rocked with the motion of the train. He said, “Be strong, my love. Our medical skills may help us survive.”
The train rattled slowly along the tracks for days. Odors of cow manure and human excrement spilling from overflowed cans filled the car. Nausea swept over me in waves. Exhausted prisoners leaned against each other, taking turns to rest along rough rocking walls. Only the warmth of other bodies heated us. Sometimes when the train stopped, farmers brought us water and bread we passed hand to hand, sharing.
A young woman near me slid to the floor, unable to rise. She begged me to keep her infant safe while she slept. I consoled the crying baby, who finally quieted, after I gave her a piece of cloth dipped in water to suck. Patrice watched. “You’ll be a wonderful mother.”
The train lurched to a stop. The door opened wide. Cold fresh air diluted the stench around us. Shouting German officers announced our destination would be Terezin, Czechoslovakia – Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp.
Fear stopped my breath. I wanted to be back in Vienna. Safe. Warm. Loved. I clung to Patrice until two uniformed men pawed through frightened prisoners, dragging men out the door. They jerked Patrice from my arms and shoved him out to the ground.
I wanted to join him. Patrice shook his head. I wedged my body against the door frame, staring as officers lined him up with the other prisoners facing away from the car. Shots rang out. Patrice crumpled to the ground, unmoving. Bodies fell beside him staining the snow red.
Sobs wracked my thin body as I pushed to the back of the car. Around me, women shrieked. I hid in silence hoping the soldiers wouldn’t come for me. Finally, the door closed, and the railcar moved forward. I cried for Patrice for days and distracted myself from numbing grief by trying to calm others. Locked in the rocking cattle car, I wondered what lay ahead as I helped crying children, comforted women and hugged old people.
At Bohusovice station, the train stopped and our march to Theresienstadt began. A line of starving humanity straggled along the two-kilometer dirt road to the prison compound. At the entrance, they separated women, children and boys under twelve, from the men. Soldiers searched and registered us, noting education, skills and training. I recalled Patrice’s words and stressed my medical training. I was assigned to an overwhelmed hospital block. Even the hospital’s poor conditions came to be a reprieve in a camp crawling with rats, mice and lice.
Treatment and food depended on the commandant, a position that changed every six months.
We starved. Rapes and beatings occurred daily. I wasn’t spared. Guards targeted me, a young attractive woman. The Germans couldn’t impregnate me. I was already pregnant with Patrice’s child. When we were arrested, I’d missed one menstrual period. The child within gave me strength to endure the violence.
At five-feet tall, dressed in a sack dress and underweight, I was nearly six months along when I confided in a coworker. She later helped me through childbirth in a small clinic room. Guards allowed me to keep the darling blond-haired boy, believing he was a German-rape child. They let me bring him with me to work. The baby saved my life.
Two years in the Nazi concentration camp burned horrific images in my memory. Propaganda reports said Theresienstadt was a model camp even allowing the International Red Cross to visit. Sometimes an orchestra played for hours, but the camp was a front for the extermination of Jews. At least 150,000 men, women and children passed through the gates en route to gas chambers. Nearly 100,000 of us died of disease and starvation.
We women found refuge lying on triple-tiered metal bunks, whispering in darkness. We supported each other and even celebrated Christmas. There was little to share but friendship, yet we had a gift exchange. We secretly wrapped tiny presents: little bits of soap, a button, a piece of candy, and quietly sang Christmas carols. It was beautiful.
On May 10, 1945, eight days after Berlin fell to the Allies, Russian forces liberated Theresienstadt. I picked up my little boy and rushed out the gate, heading to Vienna by rail freight car. Along the way, he became very ill. Locals helped us.
I was desperate to reach the American Zone and make it to the home of a boarding school friend in Heidelberg, Germany. We crossed the Danube to Linz, Austria, on an inner-tube, then traveled by bus to Germany. We finally arrived safely at my friend’s home. Two days later my beautiful little boy suddenly worsened and died in my arms.
Grief paralyzed me. My entire family, gone. My life was over. My one friend in the world saved me. She helped me climb out of depression and compartmentalize my devastation. I placed my past in a mental box and closed the lid. It was a lid I couldn’t open for more than sixty years.
In Heidelberg, I buried myself in studying medicine, later switching to laboratory science. In five years, I saved enough money to immigrate to Canada. Crossing the Atlantic on a Cunard Steamship Line cruise ship brought me to a safer place. I wanted to breathe free in a democracy and never again endure a dictator. I dreamed of being an American citizen with the right to vote.
With the help of my sponsor and new friends in Toronto, I earned a Master of Science in Microbiology and later moved to Chicago where I worked at a large hospital. Life was good. On a weekend outing to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I fell for a charming man with twinkling blue eyes. We married and lived an idyllic life of sailing and skiing, raising two sons and a daughter.
After earning citizenship, I voted in every election. My first life remained locked in a box of memories, but I remained acutely aware of catastrophes that can happen when citizens are deprived of the right to vote. I considered it my duty as an American to participate in every election.
Following my daughter’s death from breast cancer and my survival after ovarian cancer, I finally lifted a corner of the lid of the old box that held the secrets of my hidden past. I feared terrible memories might fly out and destroy my life again.
I first talked about Christmas in Theresienstadt with my doctor, a close friend. Later, I told her of Patrice and our son. I shed no tears. It was like a story of someone else’s life. My doctor coaxed out a few more memories, but many experiences had to be left untold.
When I was ninety, dark thoughts screamed back when a white supremacist with threats of marching with guns, came to my small town. Not in America! My anger boiled. The town mounted a rebellion against his actions and eased my anxiety.
In my second life, as a free American citizen with the precious right to vote, I lived every day ready to play, surrounded by family, friends and rescue animals. I even skydived at age eighty. Under the oppressive Nazi regime, I could never have dreamed of the freedom I savor every day. Eleanor Roosevelt’s saying is my life’s motto: Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.
Symbolic of the individuality of each woman’s life, this lip print represents each woman’s unique story. By changing lip colors, a woman can change her appearance. By making new choices, she can change her life.
Betty Kuffel, MD