Speech by Inge Auerbacher
[Check against delivery]
Madam President of the Bundestag, Mrs Bas,
Mr Speaker of the Knesset, Mr Levy,
Members of the German Bundestag,
Guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you so much for inviting me here today.
So … Who am I?
I am a Jewish girl from the village of Kippenheim in Baden and Jebenhausen-Goeppingen in Swabia. I was born on December 31st 1934 in Kippenheim.
Jews and Christians lived together in peace.
I was the last Jewish child to be born there,
the only child of Berthold and Regina Auerbacher.
Papa served in the German army in World War I and was badly wounded. He was a decorated soldier: he was awarded the Iron Cross. By profession, he was a textile merchant.
Mama was from Jebenhausen in Swabia. Her mother, my Grandma, was from a large family; she was one of 14 children. Four of her brothers fought in World War I, and two of them gave their lives to the Fatherland.
My Grandma of blessed memory was murdered by the Nazis. She is buried in a mass grave in the Bikernieki forest near Riga in Latvia.
Moses Baruch Auerbacher – better known as Berthold Auerbach, a celebrated 19th-century writer – was one of my relatives. Today, there is a street named after him in Berlin.
New York has been my home for 75 years, but I still have very clear memories of that dark time, a time of terror and hate.
Sadly, this cancer has returned, and hatred of the Jews has become commonplace again in many countries of the world, including Germany.
This disease needs to be eradicated as swiftly as possible.
We were a happy little community in Kippenheim until something happened to disturb the peace of our quiet village.
On November 9th and 10th 1938, riots and violence erupted against the Jewish people across Germany.
Today, those events are known as the Night of the Broken Glass.
In Kippenheim, there was a pogrom on November 10th.
I was not even four years old at the time.
Nazi hoodlums threw bricks through our windows. I was nearly hit by one of the stones.
Our synagogue was not burned down: there were Christian houses in the neighbourhood and there was a risk that they might catch fire as well.
All the men and boys from the age of 16 were sent to concentration camps. My Grandpa and Papa were deported to the concentration camp at Dachau, where they were held in Block 16.
Weeks later, they were released and came back home.
They told us terrible stories of the torture and abuse they had suffered.
It was quite clear that it was time to leave Germany. We sold our house in Kippenheim in 1939 and Papa lost his business. We moved in with my grandparents in Jebenhausen, hoping that we would soon be able to emigrate. But where to? The doors were closing very rapidly.
Soon afterwards, my Grandpa died of a broken heart.
New anti-Semitic laws and decrees were being issued all the time, all targeting the Jews.
And yet many of the residents of Jebenhausen remained our loyal friends, even though it was forbidden for Christians and neighbours to have any contact with Jews. Some of the farmers sometimes gave us food as well.
And most of the children still played with me.
Then I turned six and it was time for me to go to school.
By now, Jewish children were not allowed to attend the local public school. I had to walk the three kilometres to Goeppingen and then spend an hour on the train to Stuttgart, where there was a Jewish school.
It was the only Jewish school in the region. I had to get special permission to travel as Jews no longer had any freedom of movement.
At first, my father took me to school. Later, my parents had to work as slave labourers in a factory in Goeppingen and so I travelled to school on my own.
The journey to school became even more dangerous after September 1st 1941 as all Jews aged six and over had to wear the yellow star. I was taunted and harassed by some of the Christian children.
One day, a woman left a little bag of bread rolls right next to my seat.
She must have seen that I was wearing the yellow star and felt some compassion for the little girl who was sitting all alone on the train.
The deportations to the East began at the end of 1941.
My Grandma and most of the children from the Jewish school were deported to Riga in Latvia. The school in Stuttgart was soon forced to close, before I could finish first grade.
We had to leave my grandparents’ house in Jebenhausen and move into a Jewish house in Goeppingen.
In August 1942 my parents and I, and other Jews, were told to assemble in the school gymnasium at the Schillerschule in Goeppingen. All our belongings were searched.
One of the guards saw that I was wearing a little wooden pin, which he liked the look of, and he tore that off me. In a harsh voice, he told me:
“Du brauchst das nicht wo du hingehst.” [You won’t need this where you’re going.]
And I had my doll in my arms, and he ripped her from me too and looked inside her hollow body to see if I was hiding anything there.
There were tears streaming down my face.
I was so happy when he handed Marlene, my doll, back to me.
From Goeppingen, we were sent to the Killesberg transit camp in Stuttgart. Then on August 22nd 1942, we were put on a transport made up of Jewish people from Wuerttemberg and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
I was seven years old, the youngest in the transport of around 1,100 Jews. My parents and I were among the very few who survived.
We were on the train for about two days; it was still a passenger train, very crowded. Finally, we arrived at the station in Bauschowitz. The first thing we heard were the guards yelling at us:
“Drop everything except your bedroll and metal dishes!
Get going! March!
Do as you’re told!”
We were surrounded by guards with whips. My parents put me between them so I was protected from the blows. I was holding on to my doll for dear life.
We walked about three kilometres.
For the older people, it was a very long and difficult journey on foot.
Finally, we passed through an entrance arch into a garrison, very large. Our quarters were located on the top storey. We had no beds; there was just the cold floor.
It was very, very overcrowded; people were crammed in everywhere.
Theresienstadt – Terezín – consisted of vast red-brick barracks and old, run-down houses. The concentration camp was totally sealed off from the outside world by high walls, wooden fences and barbed wire.
Contact with anyone outside was strictly forbidden.
On October 10 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann and the other Nazi high-ups had decided that Theresienstadt should serve as a transit camp for Jews before they were sent onwards to their deaths.
In 1944, the Nazis beautified the camp for propaganda purposes and called it a “model ghetto”. It was all for show – an elaborate hoax staged solely for the inspection by the International Red Cross.
The camp inmates came from all over Europe. They were older people, prominent people, and many were highly decorated veterans of World War I.
Life in the Theresienstadt concentration camp was especially hard for such a young child. There was no escape:
there were only the gas chambers at Auschwitz,
or death from disease.
Most families, men, women and children, had to live separately from each other, but they could still see each other. Luckily, I was allowed to stay with my parents in the quarters assigned to the disabled war veterans.
We slept on sacks of straw, crowded together on two- or three-tier bunks.
We children became independent very quickly. The most important words in our vocabulary were
Life revolved entirely around food.
The bathrooms were just latrines, far away. Very occasionally, we were allowed to take a shower.
Our playground was a foul-smelling garbage dump.
We rummaged around here for hours, hoping to find treasure:
a rotten turnip, or some potato skin; if it was still edible, we would cut a little bit off to eat.
School was forbidden. Classes were held in secret for the children and we were taught some basic reading and writing skills.
This was called “keeping ourselves busy”.
I made a bed for my doll out of a dirty old cardboard box which I kept at the end of the top bunk where I slept alongside my parents.
One day, I found a dead mouse in the box – another victim of starvation.
There were frequent epidemics, caused by the lack of sanitation and the overcrowded conditions that we had to live in.
Typhus was one of the worst dangers we faced.
Rats, mice, fleas, lice and bedbugs – those were our constant companions.
There was also frequent deportations, mostly to Auschwitz.
In 1944, all the disabled war veterans had to report to the commandant’s office, in alphabetical order.
They had no idea that this was a selection for deportation to Auschwitz.
We shared our room with a family named Abraham from Berlin.
They had a daughter, Ruth Nelly, who was exactly my age and an only child, just like me. Her father had been wounded in World War I and walked with a limp.
Both our fathers were summoned to the commandant’s office at the same time.
A few weeks later, all three members of the Abraham family were deported to the East.
By a miracle, we were left behind.
Ruth and I were like sisters and we promised to visit each other: she would come to Jebenhausen and I would go to Berlin:
“DEAR RUTH, I AM HERE IN BERLIN. I HAVE COME TO VISIT YOU!”
Ruth and her parents were murdered in the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
She didn’t even make it to her tenth birthday.
On May 8th 1945, we were liberated by the Russian army and our misery finally ended.
Out of the 140,000 people who were sent to Theresienstadt, 33,000 died there and 88,000 were murdered, mostly in Auschwitz, or at other camps.
15,000 children passed through the Theresienstadt camp. Very few of them survived; miraculously, I am one of them.
The city of Stuttgart sent a bus to pick up the survivors.
We went back to Goeppingen but only stayed there for nine months; in May 1946, we emigrated to New York. I was 11 years old.
My parents found work with a well-to-do family: my mother as a maid and my father as a butler.
To me, America felt like wonderland. Sadly, though, my dream was about to end.
I had a very bad cough so I was taken to the doctor. After he examined me, he told my parents:
“Your daughter is very sick; she has tuberculosis in both lungs. She has to go to hospital right away.”
The doctor told my parents that the disease was caused by the three years in the concentration camp, where I had been undernourished and lived in filthy conditions.
I was placed in a community hospital.
I could hardly believe it.
“I am being locked up again!”
My face was awash with tears.
I had to spend two years in bed and undergo painful medical examinations.
Finally, my parents said, it’s enough; they had found an apartment in Brooklyn by that time and they took me home.
Within a few months, I was in an even worse state than before, with bleeding in my lungs and very weak.
I prayed to God:
PLEASE DON’T LET ME DIE: I WANT TO LIVE!
By a miracle, a new drug came out, STREPTOMYCIN, the first antibiotic that was effective against tuberculosis.
A Nobel Prize was awarded for its discovery.
I had to stay in bed for another year.
But I was so thankful because those painful injections of Streptomycin cured me.
Finally, aged 15, I started school, and I finished high school in three instead of four years. I was very interested in science so I went to college to study chemistry.
After a few weeks, I got sick again; I had to spend another 12 months in bed and take 26 pills a day and two shots of Streptomycin.
Then at last, I went back to college and completed my studies.
For 38 years, I pursued a career as a chemist in medical research and clinical work.
TO SUM UP:
1. As far as I know, I am the only child survivor who was deported from Stuttgart to the concentration camps
2. 20 members of our family were murdered by the Nazis
3. I spent three years in the Theresienstadt concentration camp
4. I endured four years of bed rest due to the severe effects this had on my health
5. I lost eight years of schooling
6. And suffered four years of stigmatisation from having to wear a yellow star
7. As well as stigma because of the pernicious disease which deterred partners from marrying me.
I never got to wear a wedding dress.
I will never be a mom or a grandma.
BUT I AM HAPPY; THE CHILDREN OF THE WORLD ARE MY FAMILY
I would like to conclude by sharing what my heart desires the most:
Hatred against a people is terrible.
We are all born as brothers and sisters.
My greatest wish is reconciliation among all people.
So light a candle today to remember the murdered innocent children, women and men.
Light a candle to celebrate life and hold back the darkness.
Take care of your sisters and brothers, then you will always be blessed.
We are all born as children of God.
The gates to unity and peace are opening.
The past must never be forgotten.
Together, let us pray for unity on Earth.
Together, let us welcome a new tomorrow.
And never lose sight of this dream.
Thank you so much.