Dan Sonnenschein: Surviving the Concentration Camps
Date:Tuesday, March 15, 2011
ID:Digital audio recording #: 20.11-04
Dan Sonnenschein was interviewed on the life of his mother Bronia Sonnenschein, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Austria.
DS: …The persecution of Jews culminated in the notorious Kristallnacht, so-called, The Night of the Broken Glass on November 9th 1938 which my mother always described as a government incited riot, the Germans wanted to make it seem like a spontaneous outpouring from people against Jews but it was government incited and orchestrated and synagogues were burned, well it’s a well known historical event so I don’t have to go into it right now. And then soon after well her father was in the textile business and he had business connections in Lodz, Poland which was a big source of the textile industry and so he arranged for the family to go there, he went there first and then he brought his wife and then the daughters were smuggled out and that’s a whole story in itself and I wish I had more documentation on that period, my mother has told me a little about it but it’s not in the book, she never went into those details in her talks because there was just too much to talk about.
BB: They were smuggled out to Poland?
BB: Well that wasn’t really any safer.
DS: Well it turned out not to be. They didn’t know. There’s that expression of going from the frying pan to the fire and that’s exactly what it was but they didn’t know that at the time. Other Jews escaped, they went to France they went to Holland, wherever and then they ended up being captured by the Nazis so it was a common story of refugees within Europe, Jewish refugees. So they ended up obviously when the Nazis invaded Poland which was September the 1st 1939 they were soon after rounded up and put into this Lodz ghetto which was a very poor part of the city and it was sealed up by barbed wire and they were imprisoned there for five years approximately. They were among the last to be deported from Lodz, more people were sent to Lodz, more Jews and they became extremely overcrowded and there was all sorts of suffering, again it’s really well documented so I won’t go into it and they were among the last to be deported in August 1944. And they were sent to Auschwitz. They were all together at that time, the family, and my grandfather, her father, had always said, “Hang in, freedom will come eventually” and so on. And as my mother has written it was not to be for him because he was killed or died of starvation, beating, whatever, in another concentration camp that they were sent to after Auschwitz called Stutthof, not as well known but extremely bad, also a so-called extermination camp and there were other prisoners there as well, non-Jews, it had been set up very early, it was near Danzig which is now part of Poland, Gdansk actually it’s called now near the Baltic Sea. Anyway they stayed there for a while and then they were sent to Dresden in Germany to do slave labour in a munitions factory. Well my mother actually worked in the office, she was very good with languages and had a knowledge of German which a lot of Jews in occupied Europe did not so that helped her in many ways because she could understand what the Germans were saying, and she worked in an office, she had office skills and so she did dictation and typing and so forth. And that’s where she met this woman who gave her this Schutzbrief, this letter of protection I imagine, this religious letter which she has talked about. So then she was there during the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies, she survived that, she said their captors didn’t let them go, they were still together, now the father was no longer there but her mother and sister and that’s what she always credited her survival to that they were together and she had these others to live for and they lived for each other and they encouraged each other.
And so they were sent on this death march, walking for… I’d have to look it up or do some more research, let’s say ten days to two weeks approximately and they were almost ready to give up. I mean my mother and her sister, her sister had apparently suggested… well they marched along this river the River Elbe, a big long river in Germany that goes into different countries and her sister had said, “Well we can’t go on any longer and so let’s just throw ourselves in the river and end it.” And so they went to their mother who said, “Yes well maybe you’re right but let’s wait one more day,” because she had overheard a guard saying the date or somehow knew that the date next day was April 24th which happened to be my aunt’s birthday. She said, “Let’s hang on one more day, it’s Paula’s birthday,” that was her name and that’s how it’s pronounced or was in Austria, “and maybe a miracle will happen.”And so my mother always remembered that because the very next day they were brought to the gates of this last remaining ghetto called Theresienstadt a famous ghetto just north of Prague in Czechoslovakia and there were Jews welcoming them there and apparently the plan had been for the Germans to just…they wanted to get rid of like any criminals to get rid of the witnesses to their crimes and apparently their plan was to blow up this ghetto with all the Jews inside and destroy all the witnesses, that’s what they were trying to do in the end and that’s why they didn’t want to let them go but by then the Russians were rapidly advancing and the Germans were very afraid of the Russians, much more so than the Americans, they knew by reputation that the Russians were brutal and treated the German soldiers very harshly and so they were afraid and they ran away. And so the Jews were just sitting around in the ghetto finally my mother when they came they were welcomed by the remaining Jews in this ghetto, they were given fresh clothes from their rags, they were given food and a bath finally, that type of thing and so it was a tremendous relief, soup and so forth they had…
And then on May 8th they were officially liberated when a Russian soldier came on horseback into the courtyard of this ghetto and said, “You’re free, you can go home now,” and Mother could gather what he was saying, he spoke in Russian but she knew some other languages, Slavic languages like Polish which she’d picked up in the ghetto and there were similarities in the words and she gathered what he was saying from some of the words and the context, it was clear. And so that was a wonderful moment that she obviously never forgot. The Jews were not like, she said, compared like with people at the end of the war, it was announced in Times Square and people were throwing confetti and celebrating but for them it was not like that, they just wept, you know.