Jewish survivors of the Holocaust
Birkin, Edith, 1927- (9 of 17) The Living Memory of the Jewish Community
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Ghetto experiences; Camp experiences
1989-02-18 and 1989-07-01
Is part of (Collection)
The Living Memory of the Jewish Community
Birkin, Edith, 1927- (speaker, female)
Thompson, Katherine (speaker, female)
Part 9: Belsen -staying for a month before liberation. The dead people were put on heaps and their clothes taken off. Roll call early morning - they stood for hours. Breakfast was brown water - nothing to eat, only vegetable soup in the evening. Trying to get water from taps but there was no water. A German kicked her friend to death because she had complained about unfair distribution of soup. At the end of the war this German had to put dead bodies on a cart. During the day one slept, or talked, or looked for friends. One talked about the future, about food - they knew the end of the war was near - so they hoped for the survival. Dream of her first meal: Dumplings and Sauerkraut. Dream of being away from the crowd clean and going home. She wanted to study, marry and have a family. More people were dying of typhus - getting weaker and with no means to wash. Overfull latrines, no paper, she had to walk over dead bodies on the way to the latrines. Time spent 'waiting' for the end of the war. Shooting heard after 3 weeks - and planes lighting up camp. She got very ill herself but she was trying to avoid the 'hospital'. Great willpower needed to keep standing in the roll call. Mutual support from friends. Germans put ground glass into the food to kill people. One day all the German soldiers had gone but Hungarian soldiers were there instead and kept prisoners in. Pinching some clothes. Some gypsies from the camp pinched potatoes and made bonfire on the wasteland. They found a swimming pool, there were dead people in it but they drank the water and got typhus. Few days later the British came, she had no strength for greeting them. The young soldiers were frightened of them, the older people were very kind, they brought water and food. At first they were given tinned creamed macaroni. A friend died eating a whole packet of sugar which she got from a soldier. She started to move around the camp and met old friends from Prague. One woman made drawings of the camp and later had exhibition in England (Marianne Herman). After some days the camp was burned and the inmates were housed in military barracks - after being cleaned. The British got carts and Germans had to pick up the dead bodies this gave great pleasure to the prisoners. Newsreel came to film them a few days after liberation. They slept on bunk beds in barracks together with an artist friend and her mother. Some hospitals were organised in huts - a doctor came and sent her to hospital - she had typhus and was very ill. People were dying all around her. She heard a doctor saying about her 'she won't last till morning' - so she decided not to go to sleep at night and slept during the day. She got through the crisis by sitting up at night - then got better. A German doctor treated them. They had Gingham sheets on the beds, later they stole them and made dresses out of them. After about 3 weeks in the hospital she felt better and went back to the barracks. She talks about her friend who is now in U.S.A. but they are still in constant touch. She had to be in quarantine for 3 months occasionally go out to forest secretly and pick berries. She exchanged the berries for other goods. She was given the option to go home or to Sweden for convalescence. Entertainment in the camp: Scottish dancing and Yehudi Menuhin came while she was in hospital.
Interviewee's note: Describes early life; born in Prague. Family background, grandparents, family name was Hoffmann. Earliest memories, Jewish school, teaching methods. Arrival of Germans in Czechoslovakia; effect on schooling; father lost his job. Train to Lodz Ghetto. Life in the ghetto. Death of parents and the effect on her; she worked in a tailoring factory; memory of hearing gunfire of approaching Russians. Summer 1944, evacuation from the ghetto; taken by cattle truck to Auschwitz. Description of conditions and routines there. January 1945, the Germans moved prisoners out, beginning of the death march. Description of death march; birth of a baby, joy of hearing bombing outside Dresden. Arrival in Flossenburg camp in March 1945, 10 days there, then by coal truck to Belsen. Details of arrival in Belsen and conditions there; food, gypsies, typhus. Arrival and reactions of the British Army. The Germans forced to clear away the dead. The camp was burned, prisoners re-housed and cleaned. She was filmed for newsreel a few days after liberation. Edith had contracted typhus and was sent to the hospital. Entertainment in the hospital (Scottish dancing and a visit by Yehudi Menuhin). Journey back to Prague; Russian soldiers in Prague. Loneliness; loss of her family and belongings. Decided to go to UK in 1946; impressions. Went to Belfast by boat to visit her sister; attended high school in Londonderry. There was a Jewish community there. She did a teachers' training course in London. After that she worked in Hendon and Edgware. She married in 1962 to a non-Jewish man; they were unable to have children so they adopted two boys, and a girl. She dedicated herself to her family thereafter. She started painting based on the concentration camp experiences; it had a therapeutic effect on her. She exhibited and sold her work. Talks about her paintings, and about being lucky to have survived the holocaust.